Taxpayers on the hook for state's derelict boats

SEATTLE -- Mike Swinkles has reason to be happy. He has a gorgeous new home right on the water of the Eld Inlet. There's only one problem.

"Are you referring to the boat down there?" he asks while he laughs. "It's an eyesore."

Swinkles powers up his small boat's motor and gets a closer look at a rotting corpse of another ship. It's partially beached under some trees and has deteriorated so badly, there's no markings or identification.

"Half of it is already broke off and gone away," Swinkles said disgustedly.

He said chunks of the boat have broken off in recent months and floated under his dock. No one knows when it was abandoned or where the owners have gone. Taxpayers will have to fix it though.

The Program

At Olympia's Swanton Shipyard, owners are tinkering and repairing boats in need. Melissa Ferris is here to see boats beyond help. She manages the Derelict Vessel Removal Program for the Department of Natural Resources.

"Most of them have reached the end of their useful life," she said while standing on the Four of Us.

Absent owners leave the boats adrift where they pose serious risks for pollution and even explosion. The job of Washington's vessel removal program is to find these rotting skeletons and dispose of them.

First they go after owners to pay for the removal. But when owners cannot, or will not pay, taxpayer dollars eat the cost. That's becoming the norm.

There are currently 226 abandoned vessels across Washington. That list has grown by about a third in three years. They are dealt with in order of safety priority.

The Deep Sea and the deep problem

The Deep Sea was not considered one of those priorities until it exploded and sank in Penn Cove in May. Arsonists torched the boat, and fishing at the nearby mussel farms had to be shut down for a time. Eventually the EPA and Coast Guard raised the ship to the surface for dismantling.

Cleaning up that one vessel nearly wiped out the entire budget for the year.

"For the same amount you can use to remove one ship, you can probably remove 50 smaller vessels," Ferris said.

The Deep Sea's owner had no insurance, and refused to pay fines. he is now missing and the department has no resources to track him down.

"The funding wasn't there to back up the authority that we have," Ferris said.

The program is funded through taxpayer dollars and a $3 registration fee on boats. It's an annual budget of $1.7 million. The disposal of The Deep Sea alone cost $1.5 million. The department estimates it has $5.6 million in unpaid fees and fines dating back years.

The others

Between laughs, Barbara Clift repeats a common sailor curse: "Everything on the water costs a lot more."

She and her husband dream of turning their 1940 Canadian military ship into a floating vacation home. Instead they look out on two rusted ships with peeled paint and corroded metal. The Clifts worry about them sinking, but also for damage in a storm.

"One day we had woken up and it had broken loose and it was drifting over this direction," she said.

The Golden West and Helena Star are moored on Hylebos Bay in Tacoma. They are considered high priority ships for the removal program and likely for good reason. In March, the Coast Guard found the Golden West listing up to twenty degrees with 20 thousand gallons of oil on board.

Tax dollars paid for divers to patch the ship and create a containment boom.The aging ships have been in poor condition for so long, there's even a tree growing out from the hold.

The caretaker refused to speak about the boats on camera but said he doesn't have the money to scrap the ships. Fellow boaters like Bill Halls are frustrated.

"Since they were brought in, nothing has happened except they go up and down with the tide," he said.

So they drift like hundreds of others. On a growing government watch list with a growing tab. Skeletons without a graveyard.