Sunken freighter raised from Tacoma waterway

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TACOMA — A drug-smuggling freighter that sank in Tacoma's Hylebos Waterway 18 months ago has been refloated and is being moved to Seattle in a salvage operation expected to cost at least $1.2 million.

The 167-foot Helena Star sank in January 2013 and was slowly spilling 640 gallons of oil and diesel. Crews tried to raise it in December, but the single crane wasn't enough to lift the ship without causing further damage. A team of two floating cranes raised it Tuesday so it could be drained of water, The News Tribune reported.

After a tow to Seattle on Thursday, the vessel will be dismantled at the Stabbert Yacht and Ship facility and recycled, said Lt Cmdr. Lance Lindgren of the U.S. Coast Guard.

The Star made headlines in 1978 when the Coast Guard found $74 million in marijuana on the vessel, which was seized.

"It's very exciting," said Melissa Ferris, a manager with the state Department of Natural Resources. "Especially exciting for the Department of Ecology because they have been out here for an ongoing basis for a year."

The Ecology Department, the state Department of Natural Resources, the Coast Guard and Global Diving and Salvage of Seattle worked Wednesday to make sure the Star was stable enough to for the trip north. The five-day prep work involved clearing excess debris and patching 3- to 4-inch-wide holes in the vessel's underbelly.

Stephen Mason, the ship's owner, faces criminal charges for allowing the ship to fall into disrepair. A conviction could mean up to a year in jail and as much as a $10,000 fine. His next court date is Aug. 28.

The entire project — including dismantling and recycling — is expected to cost $1.2 million. If the ship is contaminated with asbestos, then the cost could go up, Ferris said.

State law says a ship's owner is responsible for covering the full cost of removing and disposing derelict vessels, though the state usually foots the bill, according to an Associated Press investigation. Since 2003, only 1 percent of owners have repaid the Department of Natural Resources.