Washington State Cracks Down on Abandoned Boats

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Starboard (Wide View) of MV "Helena Star"

Abandoned and derelict vessels have been a waterfront pox for decades in Washington state.

Boats sink in waterways, burn and go down in a harbor or simply are abandoned at their moorings when owners lose interest or can’t afford the cost of boating.

Traditionally, the state has attempted to persuade owners to clean up their boating messes, often with little success despite the threat of fines and penalties. Now, the state is getting tough.

Washington’s chief legal officer, the attorney general, has filed criminal charges against the owners of two commercial vessels that sank in Puget Sound waters. It’s believed the filings represent the first time the state has gone to criminal court to deal with owners of derelict craft.

If those charges are the first of their kind, Ferguson told The Seattle Times they will not be the last.

Three criminal charges were filed against Stephen C. Mason, owner of a 167-foot freighter named Helena Star, which is shown in the photo above. She was a notorious presence in moorages in Seattle for years after the Coast Guard boarded her at sea in 1978 and found 37 tons of marijuana estimated then to be worth $75 million. Mason, who acquired the freighter long after the abortive smuggling, was charged with abandoning a vessel, discharging pollutants into state water and with releasing hundreds of gallons of fuel oil.

The Helena Star was on the state list of derelict vessels when she sank in January 2013 in a Tacoma waterway, nearly taking another vessel moored alongside with her.

The second filing charged Anthony R. Smith with one count of abandoning a vessel – the Chickamauga, a wood tug nearly 100 years old. He also was charged with polluting a waterway and first-degree theft for failing to pay more than $5,000 in moorage fees. She sank last October in a Bainbridge Island marina. The state praised the Eagle Harbor Marina staff for promptly placing booms around the sinking vessel to prevent the spread of fuel oil.

The tug since has been raised and her hull patched.

It’s estimated that the state’s cost in dealing with the two vessels will be about $1 million.

The Washington Department of Natural Resources deals with abandoned and derelict vessels. Today, it has a list of about 150 abandoned boats, from small sail and power boats to commercial vessels. It begins removal action after notices to owners fail to bring a response. State records indicate that over the years the department, often working with other government agencies, has removed about 500 derelict craft.

A major incident involving an abandoned boat occurred in late 2012 when a 140-foot ex-fishing vessel was left at anchor for months in Whidbey Island’s Penn Cove. The state gave notice to the owner, telling him to move the boat. There was no response.

Later, she caught fire and sank. Because of the threat of pollutants escaping into the water, a major producer of mussels was forced to suspend sales temporarily. It was estimated the cost to state and federal governments of raising the boat and hauling her to Seattle for salvage was about $5.4 million.

Officials said it was an arson fire, but no charges have been filed.

The state’s work with abandoned vessels is funded with a small surcharge added to the annual registration fees paid by owners of pleasure craft. The fee, once $3, has dropped to $2.

Pleasure boaters, noting that the high costs of salvage, recovery and environmental protection come mostly from incidents involving ex-commercial craft, argue that current operators of commercial vessels also should pay to support the state program. A task force is reviewing the issue.