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Oct. 6, 2022

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Sunken ships in Columbia River create watery conundrum

Determining who is responsible for vessels costly, time-consuming

By , Columbian staff writer
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An abandoned ship, foreground, is seen in the Columbia River near Jantzen Beach, Ore., as the American Pride riverboat cruises past Vancouver.
An abandoned ship, foreground, is seen in the Columbia River near Jantzen Beach, Ore., as the American Pride riverboat cruises past Vancouver. (Amanda Cowan/The Columbian) Photo Gallery

Two boat masts sticking out of the Columbia River, near the Interstate 5 Bridge, stand like headstones as a reminder of the sunken vessels that once floated there for about 16 years.

Beneath the water, traces of pollutants still leak into the river, affecting the wildlife, and no one has plans to remove the ships.

The boats are two of the 129 abandoned ships scattered up and down the Columbia River.

Abandoned ships, otherwise known as derelict vessels, can cause significant environmental damage, according to a report from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. The boats can destroy sensitive habitats. They can sink or move during storms, disperse toxins and endanger marine life.

The two ships have a bizarre history with a mysterious owner named Harvey Walter James, who had a dream to restore them to museum quality. His colleagues heard “through the river grapevine” that James died within the past few years, but they have no record of it, and The Columbian could not reach him or find any record of his death.

“He liked to fly under the radar,” according to Rick Holmes, a former colleague.

The boats

Harvey Walter James, a man from Lake Oswego, Ore., who went by Walt James, first found the ships for sale from a few nonprofits, according to Holmes.

The Alert was commissioned in 1926, and it was meant to catch illegal alcohol smugglers on the West Coast from San Diego to Alaska and the Bering Sea. In World War II, it became a sub-chaser. It was decommissioned in 1969.

The Sakarissa was commissioned in 1943 and acted as a tow boat. It traveled to the New Hebrides Islands, the Philippine Islands, the U.S. via the Marshall Islands, and Pearl Harbor, reaching San Francisco. It was taken out of service in 1974.

James bought the ships “basically for scrap value,” Holmes said. In 2006, James moved the boats to a dock that extended out from the Thunderbird Hotel.

In April 2016, James founded the nonprofit Columbia Watershed Environmental Advocates to attempt to raise money for the ships. The nonprofit never reported earning any money.

“The desire was there. He even cared about the history,” Holmes said. “He just didn’t have the wherewithal to do anything with them.”

The hotel burned down in 2012, and the ships remained in place after crews removed the remaining debris from the fire. The docks were also removed.

Over the years, transients began to take over the ships and the nearby shore. Graffiti appeared on the hulls and masts and trash piled up in the cabin. The boats began wreaking havoc and costing the U.S. Coast Guard thousands as trash accumulated and water filled the hulls.

The Multnomah County Sheriff’s Office went on board the vessels in January 2020 and noticed a large amount of diesel in the bottom of one of them, said Scott Smith, emergency response planner with the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality.

The Oregon DEQ then directed contractors to remove all the oil and hazardous materials, costing about $146,000 combined for that incident alone. In January, the DEQ removed:

  • 55 gallons of propane
  • 24 gallons of paint
  • 20 gallons of part cleaning fluid
  • 5 gallons of paint thinner
  • 4 gallons of solvent
  • 3 gallons of engine cleaner
  • 51 spray paint cans
  • 39 fire extinguishers
  • Nine batteries

There was still some hazardous residue left over, including solidified petroleum, according to a report from the DEQ.

Sinking

In November of last year, the Alert sank. Shortly after, the Sakarissa sank.

The Coast Guard has not officially determined the cause of the ships’ sinking.

Travis Magee with the U.S. Coast Guard said he is still working with state and federal partners on the case, including the Department of Environmental Quality and the Department of Natural Resources, due “to the complexities of this incident.”

Not much has been done since the cleanup, but Magee said that the Coast Guard is actively developing plans.

For some ships in the river, it can take up to a week to properly dispose of all the contents leaking from faulty ships. In some cases, crews need to warm the oil to pump it out, or it may be stuck in the engine of a ship. Draining the tanks and the pipes can take up to two weeks, Scott said.

Some chemicals in historic ships can emit toxic chemicals, such as lead, cobalt or polychlorinated biphenyls, also known as PCBs. PCBs are highly carcinogenic, formerly used in industrial and consumer products. They were banned by federal law in 1978 but still exist in older manufactured items like derelict vessels.

Smith said the two vessels potentially have contaminants, including persistent pollutants such as PCBs. All derelict vessels that were once owned by the Department of Defense have tested positive for PCBs, Smith said.

“They interfere with the immune system and the reproductive system,” Smith said. “Any critter that eats it is going to be eaten by someone else. That’s why those are particularly dangerous. We try to identify those threats as much as we can. But the cleanup process can be very complicated in cases like that.”

The DEQ is working with the federal Environmental Protection Agency to secure funding to study the sediments in the river soils that are beneath the LST-1166, a 380-foot-long Korean War-era landing craft downriver, which Holmes said was another acquisition James made. Though the study isn’t finished, Smith suspects there will be interesting data.

“We highly suspect that there’s going to be contamination to the vessels that have been on the river bottom for some time,” Smith said.

The two vessels near the I-5 Bridge are not a part of that study. Smith said the DEQ wouldn’t know exactly what’s on board the Alert and Sakarissa specifically until crews are able to raise them and begin the hazard analysis and deconstruction process. But that hasn’t been planned yet, as the DEQ currently does not have funding to raise the vessels.

Smith said it would cost the DEQ $10,000 just to test the vessels for contaminants. But he assumes the cost would be much higher to raise the vessels, get them stable and dismantle them — with an estimated total cost of $4 million.

What now?

Like the two ships near the I-5 Bridge, it’s not always clear who’s actually responsible for the ships that are put to rest in the Columbia River. The fact that the river sits between two states makes it harder to pin responsibility.

Magee said that the process of determining who’s responsible for the cleanup of derelict vessels is subjective, with many different organizations set up to help with these issues.

The Coast Guard has a responsibility to respond to pollution incidents on federal waterways, Magee said, but it is not normally involved in the relocation or movement of derelict vessels unless their presence directly impedes navigation.

“No one agency is solely responsible for derelict vessels,” Smith said.

In 2002, the Washington Department of Natural Resources created the Derelict Vessel Removal Program to help alleviate the growing issue. Since the program was instituted, more than 900 abandoned or neglected vessels have been removed from Washington waterways.

Before the program, it took months or years to get the approval and permits required for the removal of a derelict vessel, said Troy Wood, derelict vessel program manager with DNR.

Ships that the derelict vessel program deals with are listed in order from most concern to least concern, and they’re dealt with in that order. There are currently more than 300 derelict vessels in Washington. That means sometimes vessels like the Alert and the Sakarissa can be left for, in this instance, decades.

“There are some vessels on our list that have spent years there,” Wood said. “Unfortunately, it’s because they haven’t moved up in the priority scheme because they haven’t posed a greater threat to human safety or the environment.”

With a larger increase in budget, Wood said that DNR hopes to narrow down that large list a bit. But because the vessels near the I-5 Bridge are in Oregon’s custody, there’s not much that the Washington DNR derelict vessel program can do.

Moving forward, Wood said it would be beneficial to have an agreement with Oregon, so that the program can have access from shore-to-shore, and vice versa.

“That’ll benefit both states in the long run,” Wood said. “We don’t want to have to play the border game.”

Ship of success

Although James was never able to complete his restoration mission, Holmes and David McKay, another colleague of James’, did. They purchased one of James’ vessels in 2005 and have since successfully restored the boat.

The USS LCI-713, near the Swan Island Basin in Portland, is decorated with intricate details highlighting the struggles and joys of World War II.

Each room is embellished with replica items that sailors would’ve had, including tight-quarter bunks with folded military blankets on them, typewriters and weapons. The pair operate the Amphibious Forces Memorial Museum, dedicated to preserving the one vessel purchased from James. McKay is an historian, and both have family who served in World War II.

The vessel is now open to the public for viewing, and the owners and a crew of a dozen people with the Amphibious Forces Memorial Museum come on Saturdays to work on it. This weekend they plan to repaint the deck.

McKay said that restoring a vessel is an expensive and challenging feat — he said the nonprofit has spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on repairs and historical elements to decorate the ship.

Holmes and McKay have been hesitant to commit to other vessels because of how much of an undertaking it can be. One has been enough to keep them occupied for over 15 years.

“The museum was formed for the purpose of completing the restoration,” McKay said. “If you think restoring an automobile is time-consuming and expensive, try an airplane. And if you think airplanes are expensive and time-consuming, try a ship.”

Columbian staff writer

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