Final in a four-part series
Washington’s worst derelict boat disaster was by turns passenger ferry, floating hotel, bizarre tourist attraction, illicit party spot, sand-covered knoll and finally, a monumental hassle and expense.
The 229-foot S.S. Catala, built in Scotland in 1925, first plied the waters of British Columbia as a passenger ferry. It became a floating hotel in Seattle during the city’s 1961 World Fair, then was a charter fishing base and restaurant in Ocean Shores, Wash.
In 1965, a severe storm caused the ship to flood and list on its side. For the next 15 years, the once beautiful vessel slid into ignominy as a tourist novelty and a venue for late-night keggers.
“It certainly was an icon,” said Melissa Montgomery, who runs Washington state’s Derelict Vessel Removal Program. “If you talk to anyone from this area, they’re like, ‘Oh yeah, we went out and partied on it in high school.’”
In 1980, the ship was cut off at the sand line and covered over to close off access. There it sat for 26 years, sea grasses growing over it, until another storm uncovered part of its rusty remains. A curious passerby walking on the site in the spring of 2006 poked a stick into the sand and pulled it out to find it covered in black, viscous oil.
The discovery prompted a large-scale remediation project that ultimately removed 35,000 gallons of oil from the S.S. Catala and cost $7 million.
Though the Catala is an extreme case, state authorities are grappling with how to address the other large and potentially hazardous ships rotting in Washington waterways.
There are currently 19 derelict and abandoned ships 75 feet and larger around the state and not enough money to deal with them. These decaying behemoths pose the greatest environmental risks because of the large amounts of oil, fuel and other hazardous chemicals they’re likely to contain.
“The larger ships have lots more tanks,” said Jim Sachet, a DOE spill response supervisor. “They often ran on thicker, heavier fuel oil, which is more toxic (to marine life) and more persistent than a diesel fuel oil, which most tugboats and smaller ships run on.”
Cleaning up and removing just one or two of those boats can wipe out the state’s annual budget of about $750,000 for dealing with derelict and abandoned boats. Disposing of the Ked, a decrepit 158-foot WWII tanker moored in Port Washington Narrows near Bremerton for a decade, cost around $550,000.
In May, the state Department of Natural Resources, which runs the Derelict Vessel Removal Program, issued a contract for $873,000 to remove and dispose of the Northern Retriever, a 186-foot steel Navy tug. Moored on environmentally sensitive tidelands near Aberdeen, the ship had become so rundown that a marine survey concluded it was at risk of “catastrophic failure.”
In 2007, the state Legislature granted the DNR a one-time appropriation of $2 million to deal with several large derelict ships, including the Ked and the Northern Retriever. The department has applied for an additional $2.4 million under President Obama’s stimulus package to clean up and remove about half a dozen of the state’s largest derelict boats.
In the meantime, DNR must take the most cost-effective approach to clear as many of the almost 200 derelict boats littering Washington’s waterways as possible, Montgomery said. That means the biggest and potentially most hazardous ones will be left alone unless they’re leaking, causing navigational obstructions or about to sink.
“We’ll do what we can to deal with emergencies, but the vessels probably won’t get dealt with because we can’t spend a year’s worth of funding on one boat,” Montgomery said.
Authorities anticipate that the number of abandoned vessels will increase as the nation’s economic slump continues. As reports of such cases continue to stream in to authorities, Montgomery is hoping the program can keep pace.
“I don’t know how many new boats are going to come online, given the economic circumstances,” she said. “I think this next year will be very telling.”
Part 1 – Monday: Dozens of abandoned boats littering Washington’s waterways create costly headaches for the authorities and marinas left to deal with them.
Part 2 – Tuesday: State agencies are working to keep up with growing numbers of abandoned boats.
Part 3 – Wednesday: Abandoned and sunken boats wreak havoc on the underwater ecosystem, releasing toxic chemicals and jeopardizing marine life