Defusing derelict vessels demands both government and taxes

Every year at Pacific Marine Expo, we distribute extra copies of the November issue of WorkBoat magazine. Last year’s cover story was about the Susitna, the experimental, variable-draft, tri-hull built in Alaska as a concept demonstrator for the U.S. Navy. (Unfortunately, precious little demonstrating is being done because no landings have been built for its intended use as a vehicle ferry out of Anchorage, but that’s another story.)

This year, our November cover story isn’t about building a boat, it’s about taking one apart.

For years, the rusting remains of a World War II Liberty Ship, the Davy Crockett, had been anchored on the Washington side of the Columbia River near Portland, Ore. Last winter, after an illegal and botched attempt to salvage some steel, the ship started leaking oil into the river. As a serious threat to the environment, the salvage work was immediately federalized. Using money (nearly $22 million) from the Oil Spill Liability Trust Fund, the Coast Guard hired competent contractors to remove the hull and the nearly 35,000 gallons of old bunker fuel trapped in the double-bottom tanks.

During the nearly eight months it took to complete the job — all done while the vessel was still in the river, no less — no further oil was spilled and no one was injured while doing the hazardous and often toxic work.

While it is popular in some political circles to disparage anything and everything “federal” and to discount the importance of tax revenue, both played absolutely critical roles in the successful resolution of what could have been an environmental catastrophe. First, the Coast Guard had the authority to take over – federalize – the project and work side by side with the states of Washington and Oregon to take care of the problem. Second, the Coast Guard had money available to pay for it. The nickel-a-barrel tax imposed on both domestic and imported oil has kept the Oil Spill Liability Trust Fund flush with cash, which paid the bills for Davy’s controlled demise.

The successful salvage of the Davy Crockett has also refocused attention on the problem of derelict vessels. A new committee is reviewing the derelict situation in the Pacific Northwest, but other parts of the country are just as vulnerable. One of the salvage coordinators told me that numerous other Liberty Ship derelicts can still be found in waterways on both coasts, some of which are “floating time bombs.”

Let’s hope these bombs can be defused as safely and as efficiently as the Davy Crockett.

About the author

Bruce Buls

With a degree in English literature from the University of Washington (Go Dawgs!), journalism experience at the once-upon-a-time Seattle P-I, and at-sea experience as a commercial fisherman in Washington and Alaska, Bruce Buls has forged a career in commercial marine trade journalism, including stints at Alaska Fishermen’s Journal and National Fisherman, WorkBoat’s sister publications. Bruce spent 16 years as WorkBoat's technical editor before retiring in May 2015. He lives on Puget Sound’s Whidbey Island, about 20 miles north of Seattle (go 'Hawks!).

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