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Friday, March 1, 2024
March 1, 2024

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UPDATE: Davy Crockett owner gets four months in prison for oil spills

His efforts to salvage barge led to $22 million cleanup operation


An Ellensburg man was sentenced Monday to four months in prison for the botched salvage of a barge that spilled oil into the Columbia River near Camas.

Bret A. Simpson, 53, owner of Principle Metals, pleaded guilty in July 2012 to illegally discharging oil in late 2010 and early 2011 from the Davy Crockett barge and failing to report it to authorities. The crimes spawned a 10-month, $22 million oil cleanup and salvage operation,paid for by taxpayers.

He was sentenced Monday in U.S. District Court in Seattle.

“It has to be known that when you undertake a responsibility that has the potential to ruin an ecosystem, you’re going to bear the consequences,” said U.S. District Judge Benjamin H. Settle, according to a news release.

In addition to prison time, Simpson will be required to serve eight months of home detention, 100 hours of community service and three years’ probation.

Simpson admitted he knew there were thousands of gallons of oil aboard the 430-foot vessel before beginning an on-water scrapping operation. He did nothing to have the oil safely removed. When workers cut into a structural beam in December 2010, the barge split apart, causing oil to continuously leak into the river. But Simpson never notified authorities. Subsequent spills in January 2011 led the U.S. Coast Guard to identify the barge as the source of the oil.

In January, the Washington State Department of Ecology fined Simpson $405,000 for his actions. The state also plans to bill Simpson for the $680,000 it spent on cleanup, on top of the $405,000 fine.

By the time an 850-foot-in-diameter cofferdam was built around the site, there were at least 40 days of oily discharge from the barge, according to the Ecology department.

Crews led by the U.S. Coast Guard stabilized, contained and dismantled the vessel piece-by-piece inside the cofferdam before cleaning up the site. The Department of Ecology said 3.56 million pounds of steel were removed, along with 38,397 gallons of bunker oil, 1.6 million gallons of oily water and 4,850 pounds of asbestos.

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.

Prosecutors had asked that Judge Settle sentence Simpson to seven months in prison, six months of home detention and 100 hours of community service, according to court documents.

They wanted a harsher punishment because Simpson has a felony record of environmental violations. That includes a prior guilty plea in 1998 for illegally disposing of hazardous waste in Central Washington, where he operated a scrap metal business.

They said that Simpson “abandoned” the Davy Crockett after the first oil spill.

Simpson’s attorneys requested a sentence of three months of home detention, 100 hours of community service and three years of probation.

They said that Simpson attempted to address the oil leak by stopping the salvage and hiring an environmental response company to install a boom to contain the oil.

They also said that a storm pushed the Davy Crockett away from the riverbank and caused the second oil spill, according to court documents.

“When driving back to his home in Ellensburg, Mr. Simpson received the news of the problem and became physically ill,” the attorneys wrote in a memorandum to the judge. They said he later learned he suffered a mild heart attack.

Simpson purchased the flat-deck barge in 2010 in order to dismantle it and sell the scrap metal. The barge was a converted World War II Liberty Ship.

Paris Achen: 360-735-4551; http://twitter.com/Col_Courts; http://facebook.com/ColTrends; paris.achen@columbian.com.