In Our View: Derelict Vessel Saga's Lessons

Davy Crockett served as impetus for law aimed at halting environmental disasters

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Four years after the Davy Crockett became news in Clark County, the saga of the derelict ship continues to have an impact on the state. This time, however, the impact is a positive one, as Gov. Jay Inslee last week signed legislation designed to help prevent environmental disasters perpetrated by abandoned or crumbling vessels.

The Davy Crockett served as an impetus for the law, which will come as no surprise to anybody who was around these parts when the melodrama unfolded. The vessel, a 430-foot barge that was a converted World War II-era ship, leaked oil and other pollutants into the water where it was moored near Camas. The problems started with a botched attempt to scrap the ship, and the result was a cleanup that cost the state $22 million and left the owner with a four-month prison sentence, plus hundreds of thousands of dollars in fines for violating the federal Clean Water Act.

But the Davy Crockett was not alone in pointing out the physical and environmental dangers of derelict vessels. While Washington’s vast waterways are a blessing, they also can be a curse when vessels are abandoned or left to atrophy. 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. The incident spewed more than 5,000 gallons of oil into the water and led to a temporary ban on shellfish harvesting in the area.

In the wake of that, Rep. Norma Smith, R-Clinton, who lives on Whidbey Island, has spearheaded efforts over the past two years to legislatively deal with the issue. In 2013, she shepherded House Bill 1245, which strengthened the Derelict Vessel Removal Program that is administered by the Washington Department of Natural Resources.

This year’s effort, House Bill 2457, establishes new requirements regarding the sale of certain vessels. Among them: A new fee to underwrite the Derelict Vessel Program; enhanced insurance requirements; exemption of “vessel deconstruction activities” from taxes; and new penalties for failing to register a vessel. The bill’s 17 co-sponsors included Rep. Brandon Vick, R-Vancouver.

Smith said: “This legislation is about keeping boats off of the bottom of our waters and protecting the environment. We have raised the bar for buyers and sellers of high-risk vessels, creating clear expectations. And we’ve lowered the cost of deconstruction to help owners do the right thing at the end of a vessel’s life cycle.”

Such measures should be unnecessary, but as recent history has demonstrated, owners cannot always be counted on to do the right thing — which often leaves taxpayers holding the bill. Hence the need for regulation. This year’s legislation, for example, prohibits the sale of an “unseaworthy” vessel if an inspection finds that its value is less than the cost to repair it.

Of note is the fact that both measures have garnered bipartisan support, leading Gov. Inslee to say, “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.”

While such legislation can go a long way toward reducing concerns over derelict vessels, Attorney General Bob Ferguson stresses that owners continue to shoulder the responsibility for their ships. “If you break our state laws and pollute our environment,” Ferguson said, “we will hold you accountable.”

That, as much as anything, could be the lasting lesson from the saga of the Davy Crockett.