Hang the cost, burned, sunken boat to be raised | Corrected
By JUSTIN BURNETT
Whidbey News Times Staff reporter
May 16, 2012 · Updated 12:44 PM
No matter the cost, the 128-foot crab boat that caught fire and then sank in Penn Cove this weekend will be raised and removed, according to officials with the state Department of Natural Resources.
Toni Droscher, spokeswoman for the agency, confirmed that the huge steel fishing vessel is not too big to pluck from the bottom, but it will be expensive and it’s a cost that will initially be borne by taxpayers.
“We will get that boat out of there,” Droscher said. “We have to protect the resource.”
The Deep Sea, which has been illegally anchored in Penn Cove for months, caught fire late Saturday evening. The blaze raged unchecked for about two hours before fireboats from Camano Island Fire and Rescue and the U.S Coast Guard arrived and began hitting the vessel with water.
Flames on deck had largely been extinguished by 2:30 a.m. Sunday but fires continued to burn below. Fire fighting efforts had to be temporarily suspended due to fear of the boat sinking but resumed again at daylight.
At about 6 p.m., about 19 hours after it first caught fire, the vessel finally succumbed and sank in about 60 feet of water just outside Penn Cove Shellfish’s mussel rafts.
The clean up
Petty Officer Nathan Bradshaw, a spokesman for the Coast Guard, said efforts began in earnest Monday to mitigate environmental impacts as a sheen had developed on the surface of the water.
A team of divers from Ballard Diving & Salvage was hired to plug vents and seal the ship’s fuel tanks. Bradshaw said Tuesday that divers worked to “sting” or syphon fuel from the tanks.
About 1,500 gallons was recovered during the first day but he confirmed that divers had been unable to patch one of the holes. The dive company was working to fabricate a plug that would work, he said.
“Right now oil is continuing to leak,” Bradshaw said.
National Response Corporation, a firm that specializes in maritime environmental clean up services was also hired. It deployed about 4,400 feet of floating oil boom and put two Marcos Skimmers, boats designed to scoop up or skim fuel on the surface, into service, Bradshaw said.
State Department of Ecology officials were also on the scene Sunday and Monday. Spokesman Larry Altose said a team conducted an environmental assessment, taking water samples and inspecting the shoreline.
Penn Cove has a healthy population of mussels and clams, is home to beds of eel grass essential for fish habitation, and hosts a variety of sea birds and various aquatic mammals.
“There is a significant amount of environmental resources at risk,” Altose said.
According to Ian Jefferds, owner of Penn Cove Shellfish, the farm had voluntarily shut down mussel harvesting since Sunday as a precautionary measure. While leaked fuel floats on the surface and the farm’s mussels grow on 20-foot strings underwater, contamination is still a concern.
Jefferds said the voluntary closure will remain in effect until the leaking fuel situation is resolved, which he said he hoped would happen Tuesday.
“We’re hopeful they will get that done today and we’ll be back in business,” he said.
According to Droscher, the state has been after the Deep Sea’s owner, Rory Westmoreland, to move the derelict vessel for months.
The ship first showed up in Penn Cove this past December. Under state law, boats can anchor on public aquatic lands for 30 days before being required to move. Once that deadline was met, Droscher said her department contacted the owner nearly two dozen times in an effort to get him to remove the boat.
By March 13, the state agency began issuing Westmoreland a daily fine of $83.44. To date, he owes more than $5,250.
Attempts to reach Westmoreland for this story were not successful.
According to a list of derelict vessels on the department's website, the Deep Sea was one of 226 boats being monitored by the state. They are generally prioritized by order of importance and danger and Westmoreland’s boat was high on the list, Droscher said.
But, department officials didn’t believe immediate action to remove the vessel was warranted as it was thought to be in relatively sound condition and was located in a sheltered anchorage.
“To the best of our knowledge, we thought the boat was OK for the time being,” Droscher said.
The agency issued a news release Monday afternoon that listed a timeline of its efforts to work with Westmoreland prior the vessel’s sinking.
The bill adds up
Although it’s not yet clear just how much the clean up and salvage effort will cost, it does appear that Westmoreland will not be picking up the tab. At least initially.
Lt. Cmdr Wade Gough, chief of the Coast Guards incident management division at Sector Puget Sound in Seattle, confirmed that Westmoreland has been contacted and that he doesn’t have the resources to pay for the clean up.
When that happens, the Coast Guard taps into the federal Oil Spill Liability Trust Fund, a special pot filled with money levied from oil imports ‚Äì essentially a barrel tax, Gough said.
“That takes out the waiting time of trying to get the owner to take responsible action,” he said.
However, the money isn’t free and Westmoreland will eventually be on the hook to pay it back. It’s also possible he could face criminal charges though Gough couldn’t say much about pending investigations as the Coast Guard’s current efforts are focused on clean up.
Droscher said the Department of Natural Resources is also expecting to pay for the vessel’s removal. Money for that endeavor will come from a new state fund specifically designated for derelict vessels.
She could not say how much it would cost but reaffirmed the department’s commitment to raise and remove it.
“We’ve got to get it out of there,” Droscher said.
While it’s a decision that’s up to the state agency, Jefferds is wary of the proposal. He worries that attempts to lift the burned and crippled vessel could result in more harm than good as it could break up or release more contaminants.
He said Mother Nature will fill much of the boat with sediment in just a few months time and the wreck could serve as a popular spot for divers.
Considering the risks of further environmental harm, he said it doesn’t make sense to spend what he estimated could be up to $500,000 to remove the vessel, especially when the state had months to hire a tug boat for just a few thousand dollars to haul the boat away.
“Trying to raise it up will be good money spent bad in my opinion,” Jefferds said.
As of Tuesday morning, he said his company had already lost one day of sales as a result of Sunday’s shutdown. They had begun shuttling workers to the company’s other farm in Quilcene Bay, located in upper Hood Canal.
Jefferds said he was not planning any immediate legal action against Westmoreland to recover financial losses, that he would wait until the investigation into the circumstances of the fire and sinking is complete before making any decisions.
“One step at a time,” Jefferds said. “We’ll see where this goes.”
An earlier version of this story inaccurately reported the number of derelict vessels being monitored by the state Department of Natural Resources. The current total is 226 vessels.Contact Whidbey News Times Staff reporter Justin Burnett at firstname.lastname@example.org or 360-675-6611 ext. 5054.