Final piece of derelict vessel removed from river

Operations will continue for the next eight weeks

By Heather Acheson, Columbian staff writer

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Thursday marked a “significant day” in the deconstruction of the SS Davy Crockett, as the final 60-foot long, 55,000 pound, rusty metal section of the derelict barge was slowly lifted from the waters of the Columbia River.

“The occasion of today is a very rewarding day to us,” said Capt. Daniel LeBlanc, Coast Guard incident commander and on-scene coordinator. “This is a symbolic event that signifies all of the work that has been put forth to make sure we protected the environment.”

The seven-month operation was jointly managed by the U.S. Coast Guard, the Washington Department of Ecology, and the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality, along with contractor Ballard Diving and Salvage.

During the 211-day operation crews removed 4.4 million pounds of steel, which is being transported to Portland’s Schnitzer Steel for recycling.

Also taken from the site on the shoreline near Camas was another 838,432 pounds of debris, including wire, bricks, and oiled sorbent materials. Workers also removed 4,850 pounds of asbestos. The response resulted in approximately 1.6 million gallons of oily and contaminated water being taken off-site for disposal.

“The operations we conducted were extremely challenging, technically complex, and were labor intensive,” LeBlanc said.

As part of the effort, crews built a cofferdam lined with an impermeable silt barrier and additional sorbent materials around the site to collect oil that could have escaped during the deconstruction.

“In doing so, we protected the Columbia River from 33,000 gallons of oil that we have collected to date,” LeBlanc said. “Today’s lift of steel is a victory for Unified Command.”

The project isn’t entirely complete yet. According to Mike Greenburg, Oregon Department of Environmental Quality state on-scene coordinator, vacuum dredging of sediment inside the cofferdam is expected to take an additional 14 to 18 days, while removal of the cofferdam will take another six weeks.

Once finished in October the price tag of the deconstruction project will have exceeded $20 million, which will be paid for through the federal Oil Spill Liability Trust Fund.

“It was fortunate that the U.S. Coast Guard stepped in to provide funding, because it was clear the vessel owner was not able to manage the response,” said Ron Holcomb, Washington Department of Ecology state on-scene coordinator.

Response was initiated in January, when the 431-foot SS Davy Crockett suffered a significant structural failure during a salvage operation being conducted by its owner, Brett Simpson of Ellensburg, Wash. He was issued an administrative order on Jan. 21 by the Coast Guard to take cleanup action or face penalties.

On Jan. 27, the Washington Department of Ecology and the Coast Guard received reports of a light sheen that stretched 14 miles to the Port of Vancouver and traced it back to the Davy Crockett vessel. This prompted federal authorities to step in and take charge.

LeBlanc said the U.S. District Attorney’s Office for Southwest Washington continues to investigate, and will likely seek to recover from Simpson federal monies spent on the project.

According to Robert Mester, Ballard Diving and Salvage project coordinator, the Davy Crockett has been in the Columbia River for 30 years.

“We know it’s been here a long time,” he said. “These derelict vessels pose a significant environmental protection problem because they change hands many times, and they are used for different purposes.”

According to the “American Merchant Marine at War,” organization, approximately 2,700 Liberty ships were built by the U.S. Maritime Commission during World War II, between September 1941 and September 1945. The mass-produced cargo ships were named after prominent Americans. Very few of them remain in operating condition today.

The SS Davy Crockett was constructed in the early 1940s in Houston, Texas, by the Houston Shipbuilding Corporation. It was later converted to a flat deck barge by a private owner.

“This is a 1941 Liberty Ship,” Mester said. “[It was] built to be used for five years, not 50 years.”

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