Northwest sinks millions into derelict vessel removal on region’s waterways

Leaky fuel and other toxins from hundreds of abandoned ships in Oregon and Washington pose serious environmental risks

By: - October 24, 2023 6:00 am

The Tiffany, a fishing vessel, was pulled onto shore in Astoria for demolition in mid-October. The fishing boat started its life in 1939 as a Coast Guard buoy tender. (Courtesy of Katrina Scotto Di Carlo/Oregon Department of State Lands)

Powerful mechanical shears that resemble a giant lobster claw are tearing into a doomed commercial fishing ship this week as the state of Oregon launches a new push to remove several hundred derelict and hazardous vessels that litter the state’s waterways.

At the same time, the Washington State Department of Natural Resources is quickening its pace of seizing abandoned pleasure boats along with some larger, old tugboats and work boats at risk of sinking in Puget Sound.

These operations are not so much about removing eyesores for waterfront neighbors. The primary reasons that Oregon and Washington are spending millions of dollars and hiring crews to remove abandoned vessels are to avert environmental harm from fuel, lubricants and toxin spills as well as to prevent navigational hazards.

It’s not just a few rusty tubs in a bay here and there, either. Oregon’s Department of State Lands has a working list of nearly 200 problematic old boats statewide. Washington is chipping away at an even longer list – currently 277 vessels – spanning every coastal county and up the Columbia River.

A staff increase allowed Washington’s Department of Natural Resources to tag a new record monthly high of 34 suspected abandoned or derelict boats in August. Seizure notices went out to another 20 vessels in September and 19 more so far this month.

The current demolition of the 86-foot commercial fishing boat Tiffany at an Astoria shipyard illustrates the stakes. Before the state of Oregon seized the vessel in February near Rainier, it sank once and was the source of two separate fuel spills into the Columbia River. Diver inspection, towing, demolition and disposal will exceed $1.4 million, which comes on top of the previous emergency spill responses – all billed to the public because the former owner had no savings.

“Some of the samples taken from the Tiffany contained high levels of PCBs and lead, which pose a threat to the aquatic environment and potentially even human health,” said Scott Smith, Oregon Department of Environmental Quality response planner.

As he spoke, demolition contractors wearing helmets and respirators began cutting apart the wheelhouse of the Tiffany, which rested on blocks at the shipyard in Astoria’s Tongue Point district. Smith watched the noisy metal butchering through an opening in a four-story tall fabric containment tent erected over the ignominious ship.

The former owner of the Tiffany, Ronald Carnagey, 67, who could not be reached for comment at his last known addresses in Rainier and Newport, was described as a “free-spirited rover” devoted to his fishing boat in a Longview Daily News profile. Carnagey was charged in federal court with a criminal misdemeanor after the first spill of diesel and oily water from the decaying vessel. Prosecutors didn’t bother seeking restitution from the indigent defendant, who was represented by a public defender in that 2015 case.

Earlier this year, the Oregon Legislature allocated $18.8 million to the Department of State Lands to tackle its growing list of derelict or abandoned vessels. That sum is a slice of a huge legal settlement between Oregon and Monsanto Company over water pollution blamed on the chemical giant’s past distribution of products containing toxic PCBs, or polychlorinated biphenyls, which are highly carcinogenic compounds formerly used in industrial and consumer products.

The Tiffany is the first hazardous ship addressed with that new money. A department spokesperson, Ali Ryan Hansen, said her agency is soliciting input from other departments and harbormasters about how to spend the rest of the money over the next two years. She said Oregon could prioritize the removal of a handful of abandoned large commercial vessels – like the Tiffany – or tackle a whole bunch of smaller derelict recreational boats, which cost far less to dispose – tens of thousands of dollars each instead of millions.

Washington’s program

Washington’s derelict vessel removal program got a permanent funding boost in 2022 when state lawmakers in Olympia dedicated part of the annual watercraft registration fee and vessel property taxes to the cause. Now, with an annual budget of just over $5 million, the Washington program has ramped up to well over 100 vessel removals per year, partly by using private contractors. The state agency said it is now meaningfully reducing the backlog of decrepit boats littering western Washington waters.

“The inventory of vessels of concern was slowly ticking up and in the 370’s before we got the funding and now stands at 277,” Department of Natural Resources spokesman Joe Smillie said in an email Friday.

In some cases, the seizure and disposal of a decrepit sailboat or cabin cruiser is complicated by needing to involve social services when the vessel is someone’s only home or a squat. But mostly it is the presence of hazardous substances that drives up the cost of ridding Northwest waterways and boatyards of this junk. 

“You can’t just go run out on the beach and start chopping stuff up,” said Aaron Harrington, who supervised the Tiffany demolition for the lead contractor Global Diving and Salvage, based in Seattle.

“You’ve got to make sure it’s contained, that you’re doing the correct sampling, that you’re protecting personnel when you’re dealing with lead and asbestos,” Harrington said at the shipyard. “And have the right contractors who are specialized in those trades and have the right insurance to do the work.”

Harrington said the bulk of the cut-up Tiffany would go to a scrapyard for steel recycling, but he said the low scrap value would hardly offset the ship demolition cost. He said a past practice of towing a retired ship far out to sea to scuttle it has fallen out of favor at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

“My gut is that that is not a viable means of disposal anymore,” Harrington said. “I’d think you would be hard pressed to get that permit.”

Harrington shuddered at the thought of how much it might cost to tackle the biggest derelict vessels on the Columbia River, which include decommissioned military landing crafts, a Vietnam-era tank transporter, the largest hydrofoil boat ever built, a river dredge and a historic sternwheeler, the latter now missing its steam engines and sternwheel.

Pulling any one of them onto shore – probably into a large drydock – and deconstructing that hulk could consume the entire annual budget of the derelict vessel program of the state that decided to act. In an emergency, the U.S. Coast Guard might be called upon to help pay.

In the case of the historic Columbia River sternwheeler Jean, its owner is not ready to send the 164-foot ship to demolition. Owner Chris Jones of Scappoose put the vintage 1938 Jean up for sale two years ago along with a roughly 120-foot river dredge, the Anderson. Both old ships are moored near Rainier. Neither boat has found a taker yet. Both appear on the Department of State Lands’ internal list of “known vessels of concern” because of their condition.

Jones, who is a retired ship salvor, said his historic vessels have been inspected multiple times. “There is no risk of sinking,” Jones wrote in an email Thursday.

The USS Washtenaw County, then and now. In 2021, the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality estimated a disposal cost of $10-$14 million for the Vietnam-era tank landing ship. (Photo on top courtesy of U.S. Navy Naval History and Heritage Command, and on bottom courtesy of the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality)

Derelict naval vessels

The biggest derelict ship on the lower Columbia River is the USS Washtenaw, County, a nearly 400-foot-long Vietnam-era tank landing ship. The decommissioned military ship (also known as LST-1166 in Navy parlance) is rusting with its hatches welded shut in a side channel downriver of Rainier.

A Vancouver-based nonprofit corporation led by veterans who served on amphibious landing ships bought the Washtenaw County around 2006 in hopes of restoring it to be the centerpiece of a museum. But those plans were sunk in a matter of a few years by rampant vandalism, unsanctioned parties, drug use and metal thievery on the unattended ship. The nonprofit’s leaders threw up their hands and walked away. The decorated, but now contaminated ship is still moldering in place a decade and a half later. 

A different former naval ship now decaying in the mud on the Washington shore of the Columbia can compete for the most interesting backstory. The Navy had the experimental hydrofoil USS Plainview built at a Seattle shipyard during the Cold War to evaluate the feasibility and tactics of high-speed anti-submarine warfare. At more than 200 feet in length, it was in its time the world’s largest hydrofoil, which meant it could skim above the ocean waves on moveable, wing-like struts. The experiment lasted roughly 10 years until the Pentagon shifted gears in 1978 toward airborne sub hunters.

Two successive private owners took a stab at scrapping the vessel before giving up. The Plainview, which is mostly aluminum, is now aground partially on state tidelands just upriver of the Dismal Nitch rest area, which is across from Astoria. The listing wreck rests near an abandoned barge that was apparently once intended to help with the salvage or scrapping.

USS Plainview, then and now.
The USS Plainview, then and now. Back in the day, the Plainview was known as “the ship that could fly” thanks to its two jet engines. (Photo on top courtesy of the U.S. Navy around 1973, and in bottom by Tom Banse/Oregon Capital Chronicle)

In 2014, Washington state started a vessel turn-in program to accept boats that are in poor condition so they don’t become the next costly abandoned vessel. Boat owners must show they lack the resources to dispose of their dream-turned-sour and the vessel must be 45 feet or less in length. Since the program launched, it has become increasingly popular. Officials accepted 92 recreational boats over the last two years.

California also has a vessel surrender program geared toward recreational boats, but Oregon does not. However, the Portland regional government Metro, Multnomah County Sheriff Marine Patrol and the Oregon State Marine Board just teamed up to launch a temporary boat turn-in program for owners in the greater Portland area using leftover COVID-19 response grant money.

Late this summer, the Oregon Department of State Lands convened a workgroup to formulate recommendations to the 2025 Oregon Legislature to strengthen the state’s derelict vessel removal program. The forthcoming recommendations will probably include establishing a permanent funding source to support a full-time staff to manage the problem.

This 100-foot barge was first reported as an abandoned vessel to Washington State Department of Natural Resources in 2013. It remains grounded near the USS Plainview on the Columbia River shore. (Tom Banse/Oregon Capital Chronicle)

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Tom Banse
Tom Banse

Tom Banse is an Olympia-based reporter with more than three decades of experience covering Washington and Oregon state government, public policy, business and breaking news stories. Most of his career was spent with public radio's Northwest News Network, but now in semi-retirement his work is appearing on other outlets.

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