Costs rise as boat rests on bottom of Penn Cove
By JUSTIN BURNETT
Whidbey News Times Staff reporter
June 1, 2012 · Updated 3:31 PM
To date, state and federal agencies managing the sunken crab boat in Penn Cove have shelled out nearly $1.5 million and the cost continues to rise as the boat continues to sit on the sea floor.
At the end of the day, the entire event could total more than $2.24 million, according to figures provided by officials with all the various government agencies working on the incident.
The Deep Sea, a 340-ton crab boat, had been illegally anchored just outside the mussel rafts in Coupeville for months when the vessel caught fire and then sank May 13.
Over the past three weeks, the U.S. Coast Guard, and the state departments of Ecology, Natural Resources and Health have been working collaboratively to contain diesel fuel and oil leaking from the vessel and prepare the stricken ship for removal.
This week, the state Department of Ecology announced that the operation to raise and then dispose of the old boat could begin Sunday, June 3, though that is really the best case scenario, said Richard Walker, the agency’s on-scene coordinator. It’s very possible the raising will occur Monday, he said.
Earlier, it was thought it could begin as soon as May 30.
Divers from Global Diving and Salvage have been working for more than a week to prepare the vessel, but they have run into “very significant problems” that have put them behind schedule.
The biggest problem continues to be Penn Cove’s silty bottom. It’s so soft that the piles used to anchor a barge and crane in place were unable to hit a hard bottom, he said.
“They just kept going and going,” Walker said.
All that silt, along with heavy debris from the boat, makes tunneling under the vessel to secure lifting chains very time consuming. However, the divers are making progress and Walker is hoping the vessel will be gone soon.
All this effort is coming with a price, however. By Thursday, the state’s costs totaled $800,000. Larry Altose, a spokesman for the Department of Ecology, said the state’s estimated cost through completion will tally about $1.57 million.
The incident has also been expensive for the Coast Guard. Officials with the incident management division at Sector Puget Sound in Seattle confirmed the agency spent about $225,000 on the diving company and environmental containment firm it hired immediately after the sinking.
The diving company is no longer involved, but environmental firm National Response Corporation continues to work to contain the oil sheen. The Coast Guard is picking up the tab with money from the federal Oil Spill Liability Trust Fund, a special pot of money accrued from a tax on oil imports.
Indirect costs, such as keeping a boat on scene and funding helicopter patrols for about five days, are estimated at about $450,000 are not covered by the trust fund.
Once the vessel is raised, the cost of disposal is expected to be picked up by the Department of Natural Resources. Melissa Farris, program manager for the agency’s Derelict Vessel Removal Program, said Friday that a contract hadn’t been signed yet but that the boat is expected to go to Stabbert Maritime Yacht & Ship in Ballard.
As for cost, Ferris said the most expensive part will likely be asbestos abatement but the agency will spend what it must to get the job done.
“We’ll pay whatever it takes but we’re hoping it won’t be more than $400,000,” she said.
Owner on the hook
Under normal circumstances, the entire operation would be paid for by the vessel’s legal owner, Rory Westmoreland. While numerous attempts to reach him for this story and others over the past three weeks have been unsuccessful, Coast Guard officials confirmed that Westmoreland was contacted early on and that he did not have the resources to pay for the clean up.
Westmoreland acquired the Deep Sea for $2,500 from the Port of Seattle in November. The vessel was towed to Penn Cove in December and remained there until it caught fire and sank this month.
During that time, Department of Natural Resource officials contacted Westmoreland nearly two dozen times to get him to remove the boat as vessels can’t legally be anchored on public aquatic lands for more than 30 days.
But that wasn’t the first time Westmoreland has been in trouble with state regulators.
“We’ve actually had cases (for Westmoreland) on and off for more than 10 years,” according to Sheryl Lux, assistant supervisor for code enforcement with the King County Department of Development and Environmental Services.
Westmoreland owns two residentially zoned properties in the Renton area and has repeatedly used them to store inoperable vehicles and junk, which have resulted in code violations that Lux described as “moderate to severe.”
She said he’s received at least four legal notices to halt auto-wrecking activities and clean up the properties over the years but has a pattern of repeating previous violations.
Sue Hamilton, an environmental investigator with King County’s Interagency Compliance Team, said Westmoreland has operated a metal recycling business on his properties and others that have resulted in numerous solid waste and surface water infractions for such things as spilled engine oil,
Hamilton said Westmoreland typically stops the activity and cleans up the properties when ordered but starts them up again at a new location.
“This has happened a couple of times,” she said. “He pretty much corrects everything he’s able to but it happens again.”
All three agencies -– the Coast Guard, Ecology and Natural Resources –- will seek reimbursement from the Renton scrap dealer, but none are anticipating anything close to a full recovery.
Indirect costs for the Coast Guard aren’t usually covered by the vessel’s owner but the decision is up to the Coast Guard’s National Pollution Funds Center, officials have said.
The center was created to implement portions of the Oil Pollution Act of 1990 following the 1989 disaster in which the Exxon Valdez spilled over 11 million gallons of Alaskan crude into the water of Prince William Sound.
Ecology plans to recuperate its oil-spill-related expenses from the same organization and Walker is hopeful that it could get back as much as 90 percent of its total bill.
Once that happens, the federal agency tends to be pretty aggressive about recovery, Walker said.
“They will go to extreme lengths to get every penny he has,” Walker said.
Westmoreland may not be able to afford the cost of clean up, but he’s not without assets. While some property records are not perfectly clear, King County Assessor officials confirmed that he owns four properties in the Renton area that were assessed in 2011 at a total of $871,000.
Ferris said that the Department of Natural Resources will also be seeking reimbursement for its expenses. She confirmed that law enforcement officers have been in contact with Westmoreland and that he “hasn’t skipped town.”
However, she couldn’t say what financial resources they will be able to recover but that it’s the department’s policy to seek them anyway.
“Sometimes were successful, sometimes we aren’t,” Ferris said. “But we always try.”
Contact Whidbey News Times Staff reporter Justin Burnett at firstname.lastname@example.org or 360-675-6611 ext. 5054.