New rules coming for sales of old vessels

Law driven by cost to clean up Davy Crockett, other derelicts on water

By Eric Florip, Columbian transportation & environment reporter

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State officials are finalizing rules that would put increased scrutiny on the sale of older, longer barges and ships in Washington.

The Department of Natural Resources is preparing to roll out many of the new requirements later this year. Among the biggest changes: Anyone who owns a vessel that's at least 40 years old and 65 feet long will have to provide documentation of a recent inspection before selling it or transferring ownership.

The rules were created by a new law approved by the Washington Legislature in 2013. Many of them take effect July 1. And it was a costly mess on the Columbia River in 2011 that helped spur action, said Melissa Ferris, manager of DNR's Derelict Vessel Removal Program.

The botched dismantling of the derelict barge Davy Crockett spilled oil into the Columbia near Camas and prompted a complex cleanup that ultimately cost $22 million. In 2012, the fishing vessel Deep Sea caught fire and sank at Whidbey Island, costing the state $3 million to raise, remove and dispose of the ship.

"That kind of created the political impetus to do something," Ferris said of the two incidents.

The rules pertaining to vessel inspections, which would apply to hundreds of vessels across the state, take effect July 1. Part of the goal is to prevent vessels from becoming derelict or abandoned, according to DNR. The agency hosted a series of open house meetings last week, including one in Vancouver.

Some details are still being worked out. The original legislation stated that vessel inspections must happen within six months of a sale or transfer, for example, but that window may be shortened based on recent comments, said Lisa Randlette, a DNR environmental resources planner.

The legislature's 2013 action also created a voluntary vessel turn-in program allowing the department to dismantle vessels that aren't yet considered derelict, but still pose a threat of becoming so. The law authorized $200,000 each year for the program, which could launch this spring, Ferris said.

This year, the legislature passed another bill that takes vessel inspection requirements a step further. House Bill 2457 would prohibit the sale of an "unseaworthy" vessel if the inspection finds that its value is less than the cost to repair it. In those cases, the vessel could be sold only for scrap, salvage or restoration. The bill also creates a per-foot "derelict vessel removal fee" and establishes new penalties for failing to register a vessel.

HB 2457 easily passed the House and Senate. It was signed Wednesday by Gov. Jay Inslee.

"DNR's Derelict Vessel Removal Program is an award-winning model for the rest of the nation," the governor said in a released statement. "This legislation is significant, not only because of what the bill does, but how it galvanized both sides of the aisle and a diverse group of stakeholders to develop workable solutions."

Meanwhile, the state Department of Ecology continues to develop a new permit that would establish a set of rules for the deconstruction of derelict vessels over water. Currently, there's no legal way to do that.

Ecology spokeswoman Sandy Howard said a draft version of the new permit may be ready for review in June. It's unclear when the final version will be complete, she said.

It's also unclear whether any of the proposed changes now in the works would have prevented the Davy Crockett debacle. Bret Simpson, its last owner, attempted to scrap the 430-foot barge where it lay in the water in 2010. He had just purchased the vessel the same year.

The barge, a converted World War II-era Liberty Ship, soon began breaking apart and leaking oil and other pollutants in the water.

Simpson later pleaded guilty to two criminal violations of the federal Clean Water Act. He was sentenced to four months in prison and received hundreds of thousands of dollars in fines.