Commercial vessels targeted in cleanup of Delta junk

By Rowena Coetsee, Contra Costa Times, Walnut Creek, Calif.

Mar. 21–OAKLEY

Sunny skies heralded a beautiful spring morning on the Delta, but along its waterways there was ugliness.

Contra Costa County sheriff’s boats passed eyesore after eyesore last week as they wended their way toward Fisherman’s Cut, where another effort to remove junk from the San Joaquin River was under way.

On one side of the channel a crane was parked on a derelict barge; fire had all but destroyed a few more.

Farther upstream, two tiny dilapidated houses sat on docks in the middle of the river.

But over the next few weeks, much of the blight and the dangers it poses will be disappearing.

“All these ratty structures, they’re all going to come out,” said sheriff’s Deputy Jim Lambert of the agency’s Oakley-based marine patrol unit.

The Sheriff’s Office has teamed with the state to clean up the channel between Bradford Island and Webb Tract, which has been a dumping ground for commercial vessels along with a variety of other refuse.

Much of it contains chemicals toxic to both people and the environment.

“The batteries, the engine oil, fuel, asbestos, (lead-based) paint — all this stuff is sitting in our Delta and drinking water,” Sgt. Doug Powell said.

The approximately five-week operation is a first for California Department of Resources Recycling and Recovery, which is responsible for cleaning up illegal solid waste disposal sites and tracking

down those who leave the messes.

Until now, the newly formed agency has carried out its mission on land, but it’s extending its reach with this joint venture.

A heavy equipment operator was busy dismantling a red-hulled fishing boat when the small flotilla of sheriff’s deputies and state officials arrived at Bradford Island.

A few feet away, industrial-strength pumps were removing water from the Arabella, a commercial vessel from Bodega Bay that had turned up on the bottom of the waterway.

On the banks was a large jumble of tires that crews had hauled from Holland Tract to this spot, a staging area for the junk — including a sunken 80-foot-by-36-foot steel barge — they will be collecting from more than a dozen sites.

By Thursday, they already had amassed about 500 cubic yards of debris, enough to fill eight big rigs.

The cost for the dragnet operation that began this month is an estimated $465,000, state money that will be used to rid the Delta of abandoned commercial vessels.

Although a 1997 state law established a fund to remove abandoned watercraft, there’s a drawback: The grants are only for recreational boats, Powell said.

Unless someone dumps a tug boat, barge or other commercial vessel in a shipping channel — the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is responsible for keeping these areas of the Delta free of blockages — finding the funds and equipment to get rid of the hazards is a problem, Powell said.

To make owners pay for the mess they created, law enforcement first must find them, which can be a challenge when they strip the boat of all its identifying marks, he said.

And even if authorities catch up with an offender, that person often doesn’t have the money to dispose the boat legally, Powell said.

Contact Rowena Coetsee at 925-779-7141.


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