Lawmakers consider options for derelict vessels

JUNEAU — Alaska’s derelict and abandoned boats and ships may appear to be little more than an eyesore, but insufficient mechanisms to monitor and clean them up could lead to an environmental disaster, costing the state millions of dollars in the long run.

A state lawmaker has proposed a measure to address the problem affecting much of Alaska’s massive coastline, especially the far-flung harbors.

“If you go to other, more remote places in Alaska, the beaches are more littered with abandoned and derelict vessels,” says Carl Uchytil, the vice president of the Alaska Association of Harbormasters and Port Administrators and the City and Borough of Juneau port director. “As they get aged, you know, they rust, the rivets start popping and you have the chance of a catastrophic discharge.”

Most agencies don’t have specific funds set aside to clean up derelict and abandoned vessels that don’t pose an immediate danger or problem, so they aren’t usually dealt with until a crisis occurs when it’s much more expensive to manage.

Two sunken boats in Homer this past winter cost around $250,000 to dispense with. Under normal circumstances, responders could have waited until summer when costs are cheaper to perform the work, but one of the vessels was shedding an oil sheen, posing an environmental risk.

The problem isn’t endemic to Alaska; over a 10-month period that started in 2011, the cleanup of the Davy Crockett — a 430-foot derelict located in Washington state — cost taxpayers $22 million.

But Alaska’s 33,900 miles of coastline — more than the rest of the United States combined — and reliance on maritime industry make the issue especially poignant for the Last Frontier.

“People are just going out and anchoring things in state waters or putting them on the beach and basically abandoning them,” Rep. Paul Seaton, R-Homer, said. “Maybe they’ve got plans for them, but there’s no active monitoring or, you know, repair work going on.”

Seaton has proposed a bill that he hopes will tackle at least one facet of the problem.

House Bill 131 would delegate to local municipalities the authority to deal with the derelict and abandoned vessels in addition to the state agencies that are currently in charge.

“Right now, there’s just been a legal quagmire of who is really in control and how many people do you have to get in a room to agree on exactly what you’re going to do before it goes forward,” he said.

Alaska’s current statute regulating abandoned and derelict vessels was written in 1975, when the state owned most of the public harbors. Today, 75 percent of those harbors have been transferred to municipal governments, but the state is still in charge of derelict and abandoned vessels, according to Michael Lukshin, the state ports engineer for the Department of Transportation and Public Facilities.

If the new bill is passed into law, local governments would have the power to deal with derelict or abandoned vessels that are on municipal waters, submerged lands or shores.

Also, a harbormaster could use this authority to declare an unfit vessel that tries to enter his harbor a derelict and either impound the boat or send it back to state waters until its hazards have been cleaned up.

Municipalities also could clean up abandoned derelict vessels that they believe pose a danger in the future.

The bill doesn’t appropriate funding to get rid of vessels that already are out there; rather, it aims to prevent more ships from becoming decrepit or abandoned.

Boat owners could still take their vessels into state waters if their ship is deemed a derelict under the new authority delegated to municipalities. People anchoring on state waters are required to receive authorization if they stay longer than 14 days, but neither the Coast Guard nor the Department of Natural Resources has the ability to fine boat owners or execute an effective means of enforcement.

Lukshin, the Department of Natural Resources, and the Alaska Association of Harbormasters and Port Administrators all have expressed support for the bill — but Uchytil isn’t sure that the bill would have the deterrent effect that Seaton described.

“It’s not a panacea,” Uchytil said. “We’re taking small steps here.”

Still, most believe that it’s is a step in the right direction; the responsibility to take care of derelicts may cost municipalities money in the short term, but many harbormasters believe those expenses will save them the high cost of an emergency response.

“You’re going to get stuck with it anyway,” says Bryan Hawkins, the harbormaster and port administrator for the Homer port and harbor. “You’re better to address the problem as soon as possible.”