The owner of a derelict barge that buckled and leaked oil into the Columbia River has pleaded guilty to two criminal violations of the Clean Water Act.
Bret A. Simpson entered his plea Thursday in U.S. District Court in Tacoma. He admitted to unlawfully spilling oil into the Columbia River near Camas, and failing to report that spill to authorities. Simpson now faces possible prison time and hundreds of thousands of dollars in fines as a result of his botched attempt to scrap the 430-foot vessel Davy Crockett.
Simpson’s sentencing is scheduled for Oct. 14.
The failure to report the offense is punishable by up to five years in prison and a $250,000 fine, according to Simpson’s plea agreement. The illegal spill could carry a penalty of up to one year in prison and a $100,000 fine.
Simpson purchased the Davy Crockett in 2010, and federal prosecutors allege he then began to scrap the barge without first removing thousands of gallons of oil and fuel he knew was on board. The converted World War II Liberty Ship broke apart in December 2010, releasing oil into the river where it lay near Camas. Simpson halted the scrapping operation, but never reported the incident to authorities.
Additional oil spilled into the river in January 2011, which authorities traced back to the Davy Crockett. That’s when the U.S. Coast Guard stepped in to orchestrate a massive cleanup that spanned 10 months and cost close to $22 million.
Crews dismantled the Davy Crockett in the water, and pulled the final piece of the barge out of the river in August. They finished taking apart a metal cofferdam — built to contain pollutants as the job progressed — in November. The effort was paid for by the federal Oil Spill Liability Trust Fund.
The issue of derelict vessels has become a high-profile problem recently. Earlier this summer, the governors of Washington and Oregon issued a joint call for action after flying over the Columbia River. The U.S. Coast Guard has identified 33 vessels that have either been abandoned or are in disrepair on the Lower Columbia alone.
“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,” Washington Gov. Chris Gregoire said in a statement last month. “And taxpayers shouldn’t be expected to cover the costs of removing derelict vessels. We need tougher legislation to prevent these vessels from becoming derelict in the first place.”
Eric Florip: 360-735-4541; http://twitter.com/col_enviro; firstname.lastname@example.org.