Price tag for barge removal comes in at $22 million

Owner could face prison time and steep fines

By Heather Acheson, Columbian staff writer

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A 10-month effort to collect 38,397 gallons of oil products; 3.56 million pounds of cleaned and recycled steel; 4,850 pounds of asbestos; and 1.25 million pounds of debris, is what U.S. Coast Guard officials said it took to avert what could have been an “environmental disaster” in the Columbia River near Camas.

The recent removal of the final sheet pile cofferdam from the barge SS Davy Crockett work site signals the true end of the multi-agency, $22 million endeavor that prevented the release of oil and other hazardous materials from the derelict Liberty ship.

Constructed in April 2011, the 850-linear foot cofferdam and impermeable liner allowed crews to systematically dismantle the barge in the river and keep any pollution generated by the project to be contained and properly handled within, according to the Department of Ecology.

“The removal of the cofferdam concludes a 10-month response project that successfully averted an environmental disaster on the Columbia River,” said Capt. Danny LeBlanc, the Coast Guard’s incident commander. “Deconstructing the 431-foot Davy Crockett within a river system was quite challenging in itself.

“The area’s sensitive fisheries and wildlife added an additional layer of complexity in which the Unified Command employed regular consultations with governmental agencies, scientists, environmentalists and tribal stakeholders to mitigate,” he added. “Our final measuring stick of success was that the project was completed with no reported harm to fish or wildlife, and no reportable injuries to the workers.”

August marked the removal of the final 60-foot long, 55,000 pound, rusty metal section of the derelict barge itself.

Response was initiated in January, when the 442-foot SS Davy Crockett suffered a significant structural failure during a salvage operation being conducted by its owner, Bret A. 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 11 miles and traced it back to the Davy Crockett vessel. This prompted federal authorities to step in and begin the effort to dismantle the barge.

“We are all very grateful that this response has gone successfully,” said Mike Greenburg, Oregon DEQ’s representative. “The wreck has been removed in its entirety and no lost-time worker injuries were sustained during the project.”

The 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.

Simpson was indicted by a federal grand jury in September for violating the Clean Water Act. Charges include unlawful discharge of oil into the Columbia River between Dec. 3, 2010, and Jan. 28, 2011, and failure to notify authorities of the oil discharge between Dec. 1, 2010, and Jan. 19, 2011.

If convicted of failing to report the release, Simpson could face up to five years in prison and a fine of up to $250,000. The charge of unlawfully discharging oil could bring him up to three years in prison and a fine ranging from $5,000 to $50,000 per day of the violation.

“The vessel was abandoned by Mr. Simpson, forcing an extensive emergency response encompassing eight months and costing millions of dollars in federal Oil Spill Liability Trust Fund money,” said Rear Adm. Keith A. Taylor, commander of the 13th Coast Guard District. “Criminal prosecution sends an important message to vessel owners that such disregard for the environment will not be tolerated.”

According to Bob Mester, Ballard Diving and Salvage project coordinator, the Davy Crockett had been in the Columbia River for at least 30 years.

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, and then purchased by Simpson in June 2010.

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