Demolition of ship led to disaster
Owner apparently began to scrap barge while it was afloat
Friday, February 4, 2011
The ugly demise of the beached and broken Davy Crockett, now the subject of a multimillion-dollar federal recovery effort, unfolded only after years of neglect.
The former Liberty ship has languished for almost two decades along the north bank of the Columbia River between Vancouver and Camas. At one point, a former owner warned the U.S. Coast Guard that the 431-foot vessel appeared to be at risk of coming loose from its mooring and careening into the nearby shipping channel.
However, little changed except the vessel’s ownership.
By the end of last year, benign neglect evolved to active dismantling.
Neighbors living and working in the area just off the Old Evergreen Highway said they noticed several men coming and going beginning last fall. They appeared to be accessing the site across a set of BNSF Railway tracks and through a piece of shoreline owned by the state Department of Transportation.
“I wondered if somebody was down there pilfering stuff,” said Wally Galbraith, who lives nearby. “I was hoping to see a cop drive by and say, ‘You might want to check those guys out.’”
Now, dozens of Coast Guardsmen and cleanup contractors are swarming the converted barge.
State authorities have attributed the sad state of the Davy Crockett — beached, broken and leaching PCB-tainted oil into the river — to owner Brett Simpson of Ellensburg. They said an apparent effort to scrap the vessel while it was afloat weakened the Crockett to the point that its midsection buckled and sank.
There is nothing inherently illegal about scrapping an old ship, according to Kim Schmanke, a spokeswoman for the Washington Department of Ecology.
However, it is illegal to do so without a permit or in a way that pollutes a river or waterway.
Simpson had no permit, she said.
“From our perspective, it’s doubtful ship demolition could be done in water or along a shoreline without some kind of solid or liquid waste material getting into the waters of the state,” Schmanke said in an e-mail.
A set of photographs, provided to The Columbian this week by a man who says he worked on a crew hired by Simpson, shows the vessel being picked apart and loaded into a separate barge. The photographs — more than a dozen altogether — are dated beginning in late October through the first week of December.
The man said the metal scrap was loaded into a separate barge, then hauled to a metal recycling facility along the lower Willamette River in Portland.
“The first load that went out of there, he got $88,000,” said the worker, who asked not to be identified for fear of reprisal from Simpson.
Although Oregon law requires metal recyclers to maintain some transaction records, they are only made available to law enforcement. And prosecutors said there is nothing illegal about the mere fact of Simpson selling metal scraps from the Davy Crockett.
“It may be illegal that he took it in the manner he took it,” said Norm Frink, chief deputy district attorney of Multnomah County. “Since it wasn’t stolen property, the act of selling it ... wouldn’t seem like it would be illegal.”
Yet stripping the Davy Crockett proved to be the major reason the ship was worth owning.
After years of neglect and disuse, the World War II-era ship appeared to have had only one redeeming value: Its raw metal shell. The Davy Crockett is not the first vessel scrapped by Simpson. In September, the Army Corps of Engineers issued a stop-work order against Simpson on the dismantling of a boat along the Columbia River in Dallesport.
“They had pushed material into the river and were tearing apart a vessel,” said Patricia Graesser, a spokeswoman for the Corps in Seattle.
By that time, Simpson had already turned his attention 70 miles downriver, near Vancouver, to the Davy Crockett. A bill of sale indicates Simpson purchased the ship for $150,000 in July from the previous owner, Environmental Recycling Systems.
Brett VandenHeuvel, director of the environmental group Columbia Riverkeeper, sees plenty of other potential Davy Crocketts lingering in out-of-the-way nooks and crannies up and down the Columbia River.
The state Department of Natural Resources knows of at least two other derelict ships on the lower Columbia.
However, state and Coast Guard officials say there is little they can do — until a wayward vessel directly threatens public safety or the environment.
“How do we hold somebody accountable who starts illegally scrapping a boat in the middle of the Columbia River?” said Bryan Flint, the DNR’s communications director in Olympia. “Now we’ve got a catastrophic failure because of his actions, and he walks away.”
State spill-response specialists discovered the severely damaged boat on Jan. 20.
On Jan. 27, just three days after the Coast Guard assumed Simpson had complied with an order to remove the hazard, state spill-responders traced a new 15-mile-long oil sheen from near the Port of Vancouver all the way upriver to the Davy Crockett.
Since then, the response has been federalized.
Officials said that Simpson, who was initially working cooperatively with the Coast Guard, is no longer involved in the cleanup and recovery. The Coast Guard is tapping $3.5 million from the Oil Spill Liability Trust Fund, a federal fund created by a tax on petroleum products.
The boat was launched in Texas in 1942 as the same kind of Liberty ship turned out by the hundreds in Vancouver during World War II.
Kiewit Corp. bought it in 1969, said Kent Grisham, a company spokesman in Omaha, Neb.
Grisham said its superstructure had already been dismantled by that time, so Kiewit fitted it with a diesel-powered crane and put it in use as a derrick barge. In 1993, he said, the company moved it from the San Francisco Bay area to its present resting spot on the Columbia River.
Kiewit sold the vessel in 1998 to General Construction Co., which took the crane off the deck.
Grisham said that General Construction, which later became a Kiewit subsidiary, immediately sold the underlying barge to Bellevue-based Port Gardner Tug & Barge Inc.
“It’s never moved in that time frame,” Grisham said.
Four years after Kiewit sold the vessel, company officials in Vancouver began to grow concerned.
In 2003, General Construction Co. sent a letter to the U.S. Coast Guard in Portland noting that the vessel appeared to be abandoned.
“Based on our observations from the nearby highway, we are concerned that if the vessel or its mooring lines are not being properly tended, the vessel might become a hazard, given the effects of rain or other weather or river conditions,” company president Ronald H. Morford wrote in the letter dated March 11, 2003.
Morford noted that General Construction had tried without success to reach Port Gardner company officials.
Coast Guard Petty Officer Kelly Parker said a check of the agency’s records gives no indication as to how the issue was resolved.
“There’s nothing that shows … that it did cause a hazard to navigation,” Parker said.
The following year, the state Department of Natural Resources sent a letter to Port Gardner owner Mike Church noting that the vessel was illegally moored on state-owned aquatic lands. The letter gave Church one month to remove the ship, or, the letter warned, Church would be charged an unauthorized use and occupancy fee. Flint said the fee would be $170 per month.
Despite the tough talk, nothing happened.
“Obviously, the boat was still there,” The DNR’s Flint said, “so I don’t think there was much of a response.”
In April of 2009, the state Department of Ecology responded to concerns about oil leaking from the vessel. The agency reported that the Coast Guard ordered the owner to remove bulk oil and other hazardous materials discovered onboard the ship.
Now taxpayers are on the hook for a $3.5 million recovery effort.
Flint, with the DNR, acknowledged the saga of the Davy Crockett illustrates how old deteriorating vessels can fall between the cracks.
“We should have some sort of process to either create stronger liability for the owners or retire these ships in some way that’s safer,” he said. “How do we make sure this doesn’t turn into a floating garbage dump?”
Erik Robinson: 360-735-4551, or firstname.lastname@example.org.