In Our View: Cleaner Waterways

More state, federal action needed to prevent abandoned vessels

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Abandoned, derelict vessels pose significant environmental and navigational hazards in the Pacific Northwest. Is the often-costly removal of these wrecks a state or federal responsibility?The answer is both. Environmental and law enforcement agencies exist at both levels to control this problem and reduce the threats. And in the case of the Columbia River, a shared boundary of Washington and Oregon, it's even more crucial to strengthen the federal-state partnership.

To that end, Govs. Chris Gregoire of Washington and John Kitzhaber of Oregon joined other officials in a Coast Guard flyover of the Columbia River, where they were shown 33 vessels that are abandoned or in serious disrepair. And to their credit, the governors called upon their legislatures and the federal government to increase accountability of boat owners and crack down on enforcement, while urging more federal support of cleanup projects.

This issue is complicated, but a basic principle is easily understood when the topic shifts from waterways to public and private lands. As Gregoire stated, "We would never allow someone to simply abandon their broken-down car on their front lawn, and expect the public to pay to clean it up." And regarding public areas, Kitzhaber said: "Oregon and Washington's shared waterways are too important environmentally, economically and socially to have people using them for backyard salvage operations."

Clark County residents have a keen understanding of this issue. In August 2011, the greater efforts of the Coast Guard, the Washington Department of Ecology, the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality and a Seattle salvage company were needed to remove the Davy Crockett — a 431-foot barge and former World War II-era Liberty Ship — from the banks of the Columbia near Camas. Seven months and $24 million were needed to complete the removal project, and the state began a lengthy pursuit of the vessel's owners. From the Davy Crockett, 800,000 pounds of debris and almost 33,000 gallons of oil were removed; another 1.6 million gallons of oily water were extracted from the river.

Elsewhere in Washington, a derelict fishing vessel that sank in Penn Cove in Puget Sound was raised last month after leaked oil threatened Whidbey Island's mussel beds.

Clearly, these two incidents — and the multitude of other vessels spotted by Gregoire and Kitzhaber during their flyover — illustrate the seriousness of the threat posed by abandoned vessels. According to an Associated Press story, Gregoire advocates tougher legislation to prevent neglected boats, plus more authority by the state to hold boat owners "to a higher degree of accountability." At the federal level, more financial resources will be needed for removal projects, beyond what is available in the federal Oil Spill Liability Trust Fund.

Although the primary threat is to the environment, major navigational hazards are also created when abandoned vessels break loose and run adrift. It should not have taken seven months and $24 million to remove the Davy Crockett. We hope the initiative taken by Gregoire and Kitzhaber will accelerate state and federal attention to the problem.