In Our View: Crockett Conquered

Lessons learned as complicated removal of abandoned barge nears completion

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Numerous statistics lead us to believe the Northwest Davy Crockett of 2011 was in many ways more difficult to conquer than the iconic 1836 hero of the Texas Revolution. Back then, 13 days and 1,500 Mexican troops were needed to defeat the original Crockett and fewer than 200 independence-seekers inside the Alamo. But this year, vanquishing the modern Davy Crockett — a 431-foot barge and former World War II-era Liberty Ship — required seven months, $20 million and the greater efforts of the U.S. Coast Guard, the Washington Department of Ecology, the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality and Seattle-based contractor Ballard Diving & Salvage.

As of 11:35 a.m. Thursday, the Columbia River was free of the last piece of rusted steel that had polluted the water near Camas. Workers hoisted a 60-foot chunk from the water and, finally, the battle is over. Or is it? State environmental officials reminded Columbian reporter Eric Florip that two aspects of the project remain. Contaminated sediment must be removed, and a metal cofferdam (built around the vessel to keep pollutants from spreading) must be deconstructed. That work is expected to take another two or three weeks.

All parties involved in this massive project — engineers, workers, and others — are commended. Two major lessons have emerged for the enlightenment of state officials and the public.

The first lesson is a positive one: It helps to prepare — both financially and with expert planning — for these types of problems. That’s why taxpayers should feel good about the federal Oil Spill Liability Trust Fund. The fund was created and is maintained by a tax on petroleum products. It pays for recovery of abandoned marine vessels, and this was not some simple weekend lift-and-remove project. Workers had to first install a double wall that included a cofferdam and a silt barrier to keep further pollution out of the river. Then, they had to dismantle the Davy Crockett piece-by-piece while it was stuck in the river bank. Deep into the project, workers discovered the vessel was in such bad condition that removing it in one piece would have been impossible, thus confirming that dismantling was the proper strategy.

More than 800,000 pounds of debris were removed and almost 33,000 gallons of pure oil, plus another 1.6 million gallons of oily water, had to be extracted.

The second major lesson is not so positive: State and federal officials should have learned that quicker, more decisive action needs to be taken in these types of cases, both against the culprits and in launching the cleanup work. Even now, it remains uncertain who is most responsible for the expensive blunder. According to Columbian stories, the most recent owner of the Davy Crockett is one Brett Simpson of Ellensburg, but Florip’s story Thursday reflected a long path toward fully resolving this issue. Some type of reimbursement likely will be sought from Simpson.

Simpson reportedly tried to scrap the damaged barge — without obtaining permits — in January, but it buckled and partially sank. Later in January, an oil sheen was traced 15 miles from the barge. Ultimately, when it was determined that the barge had to be dismantled, the complicated recovery finally got under way.

We hope the most culpable party is identified and held responsible, and that the next removal of an abandoned vessel will be carried out more expeditiously.