Juneau artist R.D. Robinson is the subject of a multimillion-dollar lawsuit by the federal government. (Michael Penn | Juneau Empire file)

Juneau artist R.D. Robinson is the subject of a multimillion-dollar lawsuit by the federal government. (Michael Penn | Juneau Empire file)

Federal government sues Juneau artist over sunken tugboat

Admiralty court seeks millions to pay for removal of Challenger

The federal government is suing a Juneau artist for millions of dollars spent to raise a sunken tugboat from Gastineau Channel in 2016.

On Thursday, the Aviation, Space and Admiralty Litigation section of the U.S. Department of Justice filed a lawsuit in Alaska’s U.S. District Court seeking $2.5 million from Robert Robinson, better known as R.D. Robinson.

Robinson is the last owner of the 96-foot WWII tugboat Challenger, which sank in the channel on Sept. 12, 2015. At the time, the complaint states, Robinson was the owner of the boat, making him responsible for its removal from the channel.

In an interview with the Empire, Robinson denied that claim, saying he had never completed a purchase from its previous owner, Tim Miles.

In Thursday’s complaint, federal attorneys declare, “At all times material herein, defendant Robert D. Robinson owned the Challenger.”

After the Challenger sank, the U.S. Coast Guard responded to contain lube oil and other materials leaking from the Challenger. With Robinson denying ownership, the national Oil Spill Liability Trust Fund agreed to pay for the raising and destruction of the Challenger in order to protect the Mendenhall Wetlands and an impending release of salmon fry from the Douglas Island Pink and Chum (DIPAC) salmon hatchery.

The Commandant of the Coast Guard approved the effort in January 2016, and a mammoth effort resulted as work crews used a crane barge, an 18-ton crane, two landing craft, a skiff, divers, generators and other equipment to lift the Challenger and tow it to the AJ Mine Dock for dismantling.

“On Sept. 11, 2017,” the complaint states, “the (National Pollution Fund Center) sent a bill to defendant Robinson for $2,541,197.98. To date, no payments have been made by defendant Robinson and all such amounts are due and owing.”

The complaint also states that the federal government could request additional damages for any harm to the natural environment.

Robinson is a sculptor and mosaic artist who designed the artwork in front of the Island Pub in Douglas, among other projects across town.

The case has been assigned to judge Hezekiah Russel Holland in Anchorage.

The tugboat Lumberman remains derelict and moored in the middle of Gastineau Channel on state tidelands.


• Contact reporter James Brooks at jbrooks@juneauempire.com or 523-2258.


Crew aboard the barge-crane Brightwater lifts the sunken 96-foot tugboat Challenger in Gastineau Channel in February 2016. The federal government has filed a civil lawsuit against Juneau artist R.D. Robinson, alleging he is responsible for the cost of removing the ship from Gastineau Channel. (Michael Penn | Juneau Empire file)

Crew aboard the barge-crane Brightwater lifts the sunken 96-foot tugboat Challenger in Gastineau Channel in February 2016. The federal government has filed a civil lawsuit against Juneau artist R.D. Robinson, alleging he is responsible for the cost of removing the ship from Gastineau Channel. (Michael Penn | Juneau Empire file)

Crew aboard the barge-crane Brightwater lifts the sunken 96-foot tugboat Challenger in Gastineau Channel in February 2016. The federal government has filed a civil lawsuit against Juneau artist R.D. Robinson, alleging he is responsible for the cost of removing the ship from Gastineau Channel. (Michael Penn | Juneau Empire file)

Crew aboard the barge-crane Brightwater lifts the sunken 96-foot tugboat Challenger in Gastineau Channel in February 2016. The federal government has filed a civil lawsuit against Juneau artist R.D. Robinson, alleging he is responsible for the cost of removing the ship from Gastineau Channel. (Michael Penn | Juneau Empire file)

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