You Can’t Just Throw Away a 200-Ton Boat

Alaska’s abandoned ships are turning into a multimillion-dollar environmental nuisance.

An old boat pulled from the water in Sitka, Alaska.
Pie​ter Ten Hoopen / Agence VU / Redux

The Lumberman, a 107-foot World War II–era steel-hull tugboat, has been floating for months at the quiet cruise-ship dock in Juneau, awaiting a watery grave. Abandoned for nearly a decade, the Lumberman was moored in Juneau’s Gastineau Channel in the early 2000s by its last owner. Two years ago, the 192-ton tugboat’s anchor line broke, stranding it in state tidelands and creating a jurisdictional hot potato for city, state, and Coast Guard officials as they debated how to dispose of the vessel.

Then, last winter, a high tide and forceful winds pushed the Lumberman from the tidelands. Fearing property damage, the city of Juneau took responsibility for the historic tug and towed it to the cruise-ship dock. In late October, Juneau got permission from the Environmental Protection Agency to get rid of the boat by scuttling it offshore, about 150 miles from the city. This spring, weather permitting, city officials will open a six-inch valve on the ship, letting it sink 8,400 feet to the ocean floor.

This is an uncommon way to deal with a common problem in coastal areas: what to do with abandoned and derelict vessels. Hundreds of such boats are strewn along Alaska’s coast, where they can become navigational hazards or dangerously alluring destinations; in 2017, two people who were trying to reach the Lumberman died when their skiff overturned. Abandoned boats can also damage habitats and leach toxic materials—such as lead paint, asbestos, and household cleaners—that threaten coastal environments. Each West Coast state would need more than $20 million to handle its backlog, as well as close to $5 million annually to address the ongoing problem. On Alaska’s remote shorelines, these costs could double.

There are many reasons a boat may be abandoned: The owner might die or become unable to continue the boat’s upkeep, or the cost of either maintenance or disposal can be prohibitive. “People generally don't walk away from the nicer boats that have value,” says Matthew Creswell, harbormaster at Juneau’s Docks and Harbors. “They walk away from the boats costing an arm and a leg to get rid of.”

The cost of removal varies by a vessel’s size and location. On Alaska’s expansive coasts, where infrastructure is sparse, prices are particularly high. Creswell notes that the Lumberman, for example, could be discarded and hauled to a landfill, or transported by barge to Seattle—but either option would cost between $250,000 and $400,000. Sinking is a bargain in comparison, but it will still cost Juneau Docks and Harbors more than $100,000 for towing, removing trash, and stripping toxic lead paint from the vessel. “It’s not a common method,” Creswell says. “But in this case with the Lumberman, [scuttling] was the most cost-effective method.”

Juneau discards about a dozen boats annually. Most are smaller than the Lumberman and easier to remove and salvage locally. But long-abandoned boats are piling up, and will continue to do so: By 2025, Alaska’s fleet will include more than 3,000 vessels that are between 28 and 59 feet long and are more than 45 years old—past the point of a useful life for most boats—according to the Alaska-based McKinley Research Group.

In 2017, cast-off boats caught the attention of the Pacific States/British Columbia Oil Spill Task Force, an intergovernmental group that promotes coordination in addressing oil spills. The task force labeled derelict and abandoned vessels a “critical, emerging issue” and established a work group to explore the problem. “There is a strong sense from everybody who deals with the issue that it is getting worse pretty much everywhere” on the West Coast, says Hilary Wilkinson, an environmental consultant in Washington State who helps lead the task force and chairs its abandoned-vessel work group.

The work group recommends that jurisdictions look to Washington State, which is considered to have a model boat-disposal program—one focused on prevention, owner responsibility, and generating funds for removal. Any owner who cannot pay for disposal of a derelict (but floating) vessel that’s less than 45 feet long can ask the Washington Department of Natural Resources to remove it for free. The program handles about 20 boats annually, using money collected from vessel-registration fees.

Adequate funding is a “major obstacle” for every West Coast state, according to the work group’s findings. Aaron Timian, Alaska’s coordinator for abandoned and derelict vessels, says the state is still developing ways to secure funds. In response to mounting issues caused by vessels like the Lumberman, the state passed legislation in 2018 establishing the program that Timian now leads. That law, which requires boats longer than 24 feet to have a title, simplified the impoundment process and added civil penalties and enforcement authority. The paper trail should also make it easier for authorities to track down owners. While it’s too soon to tell if it will be effective, Creswell says, “It’s totally a step in the right direction.”

This post appears courtesy of  High Country News.