Davy Crockett barge owner fined $405,000

Removal of vessel from Columbia River cost more than $22 million

By Eric Florip, Columbian transportation & environment reporter

Published:

Updated: January 28, 2013, 7:02 PM

 

The owner of a barge on the Columbia River at the center of a massive cleanup in 2011 has been fined $405,000 by the Washington State Department of Ecology.

Bret Simpson and his company Principle Metals LLC were hit with the penalty as a result of dozens of environmental violations and negligence in Simpson’s botched salvage of the derelict barge Davy Crockett, officials said Monday. The 430-foot vessel continuously spilled oil into the river, but Simpson never notified authorities when the illegal in-water scrapping operation first went awry, according to the ecology department.

“There was really no attempt by the spiller to take appropriate response action,” said Dave Byers, the department’s spill response manager.

Simpson purchased the converted World War II Liberty Ship in 2010 before attempting to scrap it in place with thousands of gallons of oil on board. The vessel buckled, releasing oil and debris into the water on the Washington side of the Columbia River near Camas. By the time an 850-foot cofferdam was built around the site, there were at least 40 days of oily discharge from the barge, according to the ecology department.

The incident prompted a 10-month, multiagency response that ultimately cost taxpayers more than $22 million. Crews led by the U.S. Coast Guard stabilized, contained and dismantled the vessel piece by piece in the water before cleaning up the site for good. The Davy Crockett saga also spurred the formation of a task force that identified more than 50 other “vessels of concern” on the lower Columbia and Willamette rivers.

Simpson, of Ellensburg, later pleaded guilty to two criminal violations of the Clean Water Act. His sentencing is currently set for March in U.S. District Court in Tacoma. Prosecutors have asked for a sentence of 13 months — including six months of in-home detention — plus 100 hours of community service, according to court documents.

The state’s penalty does not preclude the Coast Guard or other agencies from taking additional action, Byers said. The state also plans to bill Simpson for the $680,000 it spent on the cleanup, on top of the $405,000 fine, according to Ecology spokeswoman Linda Kent.

State officials and federal prosecutors have both highlighted Simpson’s history of environmental violations. That includes a prior guilty plea for illegally disposing of hazardous waste in Central Washington, where he operated a scrap metal business. Prosecutors have pushed for community service as part of his Davy Crockett sentence in part due to Simpson’s “limited financial resources,” according to court documents.

Simpson can appeal his state fine, though the ecology department has not received any indication as to whether he will do so, Kent said.

An attorney for Simpson declined to comment Monday.

Eric Florip: 360-735-4541; http://twitter.com/col_enviro; eric.florip@columbian.com.