The owner of a derelict barge that leaked oil into the Columbia River and triggered a $20 million cleanup has been charged with two felonies, the U.S. Attorney’s Western Washington district announced Thursday.
A federal grand jury indicted Bret A. Simpson of Ellensburg on charges of unlawful discharge and failure to report — both violations of the Clean Water Act. He could face up to five years in prison and hundreds of thousands of dollars in fines if convicted.
After purchasing the 430-foot barge Davy Crockett in 2010, federal prosecutors allege that Simpson attempted to scrap the vessel without first removing thousands of gallons of oil and fuel he knew was on board. The vessel began to break in early December, leaking oil into the Columbia River, according to the indictment.
Simpson, who owns Principle Metals LLC, halted the scrapping operation, according to the indictment, but never reported the leak to federal authorities. In January, river debris caused the converted World War II Liberty Ship to buckle even more, partially sink and release additional oil and pollutants into the river.
The U.S. Coast Guard then issued an order for Simpson to remove visible oil and salvage equipment from the vessel. He complied, according to the indictment, and authorities believed the Davy Crockett was no longer a pollution risk.
But later that month, the state Department of Ecology traced an oil sheen 14 miles upstream to the barge. That’s when federal authorities stepped in and took over the cleanup.
Officials initially hoped to take the vessel out of the river before dismantling it. But local shipyards balked at accepting the crippled vessel, so authorities decided to take it apart, piece by piece, where it sat on the north bank of the Columbia River near Camas.
Led by the Coast Guard, Washington State Department of Ecology and Oregon Department of Environmental Quality, crews went to work building a metal cofferdam around the broken barge to keep pollutants from spreading. Workers pulled almost 4.5 million pounds of steel from the site during the next seven months, extracting the last major piece of the barge in late August.
The cleanup didn’t end then. Crews are still removing contaminated sediment and oil left in the footprint of the large vessel. They’ll also have to remove the cofferdam. That process is still on track to be finished later this fall, Coast Guard Petty Officer Shawn Eggert said Thursday.
Project leaders have characterized the Davy Crockett removal as a complex, labor-intensive operation. Rear Adm. Keith Taylor, commander of the 13th Coast Guard District, welcomed Thursday’s indictment.
“The vessel was abandoned by Mr. Simpson, forcing an extensive emergency response encompassing eight months and costing millions of dollars.” Taylor said in a statement. “Criminal prosecution sends an important message to vessel owners that such disregard for the environment will not be tolerated.”
The operation’s $20 million cost will be covered by the federal Oil Spill Liability Trust Fund. Coast Guard officials had said previously that the government would likely seek at least some reimbursement from Simpson.
If convicted, Simpson faces up to five years in prison and a fine of as much as $250,000 for not reporting the oil release to authorities. The penalty for the illegal discharge is up to three years in prison and a fine of $5,000 to $50,000 per day of the violation, according to the U.S. Attorney’s Office.
Simpson will be arraigned on Oct. 14 in U.S. District Court in Tacoma.