In Our View: Lower Boom on Polluters

It's time to get tough on owners of 230 derelict vessels in Washington

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Washington Department of Natural Resource spokeswoman Toni Weyman Droscher, in a recent Seattle Times story, affirmed an axiom that has pestered recreational mariners for centuries: "There's a saying that a boat is a hole in the water that you throw money into."On the larger scale, though, public money gets thrown into that hole. Washington has about 230 entries on the state's Derelict Vessel list, and many of them are large vessels with ownership records that are almost as murky as the waters they pollute. Tough enforcement is the best strategy.

And that's why we were glad to see the state Department of Ecology lower the boom on Bret Simpson, said to be of Ellensburg but a man who remains rather infamous in Clark County. Simpson owned the abandoned derelict barge Davy Crockett that polluted the Columbia River before state and federal agencies completed a costly cleanup and removal in 2011. As reported in a Tuesday Columbian story, Simpson and his company, Principle Metals LLC, have been socked with a $405,000 fine by DOE.

That's just the start of Simpson's problems. The state also plans to bill him $608,000 for cleanup expenses incurred by the state. And his woes transcend mere finances. In March he faces sentencing in U.S. District Court in Tacoma after pleading guilty to two criminal violations of the Clean Water Act. Prosecutors say they'll seek a sentence of 13 months — half of it in-home detention — plus 100 hours of community service. Those same prosecutors say Simpson has "limited financial resources."

Which takes us to the second problem that the state directly (and taxpayers indirectly) confront with derelict vessels. Even if Simpson paid all of his financial penalties, that total would fall far short of the $22 million-plus spent (mostly by federal agencies) on the 10-month cleanup of the Davy Crockett.

Our hope is that the punishment will at least be enough to catch the eye of other violators. Certainly, the problem is not going away anytime soon. The Coast Guard and other agencies are involved in two failing ships on the Hylebos Waterway in Tacoma: the 167-foot Helena Star, which sank Friday, and the nearby 130-foot Golden West, which is listing after a mast from the Helen Star fell on it. Cloudy ownership issues keep state and federal officials perplexed about whom to punish for both of these violations.

Many postings on the Derelict Vessels list involve smaller, recreational craft. As Droscher, the DNR spokeswoman, also said, "People dream big dreams when they get a boat that's a good deal, but chances are it's not." Other larger derelict vessels are remnants of nefarious shipping operations. The Helena Star, for example, gained notoriety in 1978 when the Coast Guard intercepted it off the Washington coast carrying 37 tons of marijuana.

Regardless the origin of these stories, they all have the same sad ending: costly cleanups for which the public must pay. All the more reason to intensify enforcement and maximize punishment, through both fines and incarceration.

Washington's waterways are too precious to take any other approach.