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.