The privately owned 107-foot tugboat named Tagish sits partially below the water south of the downtown cruise ship docks Thursday morning as recovery efforts begin by the Coast Guard. (Clarise Larson / Juneau Empire)

The privately owned 107-foot tugboat named Tagish sits partially below the water south of the downtown cruise ship docks Thursday morning as recovery efforts begin by the Coast Guard. (Clarise Larson / Juneau Empire)

Recovery efforts are underway for sunken tugboat

Coast Guard is leading the operation, says it could take multiple days to complete

After sitting at the bottom of the Gastineau Channel just south of the downtown cruise ship docks for more than a month, a privately owned 107-foot tugboat is being removed from the water for disposal.

“It’s definitely a big operation,” said Petty Officer 2nd Class Bradley Nystrom with the U.S. Coast Guard, which is leading the effort.

The U.S. Coast Guard took over the response in early January after the owner, Don Etheridge, was unable to secure the funds to hire a contractor by the Coast Guard’s deadline to recover the 81-year-old tugboat, the Tagish, which is uninsured.

Workers stand on at the edge of a barge that was brought to Juneau to remove the privately owned 107-foot tugboat, theTagish, that sank south of the downtown cruise ship docks in late December. (Clarise Larson / Juneau Empire)

Workers stand on at the edge of a barge that was brought to Juneau to remove the privately owned 107-foot tugboat, theTagish, that sank south of the downtown cruise ship docks in late December. (Clarise Larson / Juneau Empire)

“It breaks my heart,” Etheridge told the Empire Thursday afternoon. “But it’s something I just can’t afford to keep anymore.”

According to Nystrom, the recovery efforts began Thursday at 7 a.m. after a safety briefing between officials from the Coast Guard, City and Borough of Juneau, Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation and the contracted salvage company Melino’s Marine Services.

He said the plan is to use cranes on a barge anchored nearby to slowly pull up slings surrounding the vessel to raise it out of the water — hopefully in one piece — before dewatering it and placing it on the barge to then be transported to a hazmat disposal site located in Seattle.

Divers manuever in the water to prepare slings to be placed surrounding a a privately owned 107-foot tugboat that is being recovered by the Coast Guard after it sunk in late December. (Clarise Larson / Juneau Empire)

Divers manuever in the water to prepare slings to be placed surrounding a a privately owned 107-foot tugboat that is being recovered by the Coast Guard after it sunk in late December. (Clarise Larson / Juneau Empire)

If the boat breaks apart into separate pieces, Nystrom said the Coast Guard will reassess its plan and likely take everything out “inch by inch” and “piece by piece.”

“It’s just a really old boat, we’re hoping it stays together because if it doesn’t we are going to have to figure something else out,” he said.

The privately owned 107-foot tugboat, the Tagish, sits partially below the water south of the downtown cruise ship docks Thursday morning as recovery efforts begin by the Coast Guard. (Clarise Larson / Juneau Empire)

The privately owned 107-foot tugboat, the Tagish, sits partially below the water south of the downtown cruise ship docks Thursday morning as recovery efforts begin by the Coast Guard. (Clarise Larson / Juneau Empire)

The costs of the recovery are currently estimated to be around $500,000 and are initially being paid for by the Oil Spill Liability Trust Fund, a federal trust which provides an immediate funding source for federal responses to oil spills. However, Etheridge, who is also the board chair of CBJ Docks and Harbors, will ultimately be liable to pay back the cost.

According to Etheridge, he is still waiting to see how much the effort will cost in total, and he is unsure of how he is going to find the funds to pay for it.

“I don’t know what the bill is gonna be,” he said. “I’ll try to figure out what we’re gonna do from there.”

As the effort was underway Thursday morning, the low rumble of heavy machinery rang loud and clouded conversations as divers splashed in the cold dark water to prepare the recovery slings. Absorbent pads lined the shore near the vessel, and a sheen of oil glimmered above the calm water in the area surrounded by containment booms.

Nystrom said after the vessel is out of the water, additional absorbent pads will be used to soak the remaining oil along with running a sweep in the area — essentially an oil-soaking blanket.

He said once the oil sheen disappears and any other contaminants appear cleared, that is when the Coast Guard will remove the containment booms and place the clean-up material on the barge to also be sent to the hazmat disposal site.

Rachael Krajewski, Southeast region environmental programs manager Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation, said she has been working with the vessel owner and Coast Guard since the vessel sank and the DEC has been supplementing the pollution mitigation efforts with absorbent materials along with providing input for planning of the recovery.

After the vessel is removed, she said the DEC will continue to monitor the are and manage any additional signs of pollution that might arise.

Chad Gubala, the treatment and production manager for CBJ, said the city’s utilities division is also monitoring the situation as there is a sewage pipe directly below the boat, which if impacted could cause major issues.

“Wastewater would back up in Juneau within about two hours and pose a severe human health threat,” he said.

Gubala explained that all the wastewater that comes from the downtown Juneau and Douglas area runs through the pipeline that transmits the waste to the city’s treatment plant. If broken, Gubala said all that wastewater would start flowing directly into the harbor and would likely do so for days until an underwater operation would be able to fix the damaged line.

He said the city has been aware and closely monitoring the pipeline for weeks, and currently has a dive team and ROV camera on standby if something were to happen. Gubala said he can’t say how likely it is that something might happen, but noted that boat is extremely heavy — he estimated it to be around 300 tons — and said the possibility can’t be ruled out.

“I am fairly confident, but let’s just say I haven’t been sleeping at night,” he said.

Matt Creswell, CBJ harbormaster, said he was monitoring the situation as the recovery progressed, but noted this effort is a Coast Guard operation and the city does not have a significant role in the recovery.

“This just proves that things can happen,” he said. “Things get cold, things freeze, things break.”

The dock the Tagish was berthed and sunk at is city-owned and Etheridge was a stall holder. According to Creswell, a resident can choose to not insure their boat, however, the city still requires a monthly payment surcharge of 25 cents per foot of the uninsured boat. That was the case for the Tagish, which was suspected to have sunk because of a burst pipe due to cold weather.

Creswell said after this incident the city will likely look into possibly changing the regulations so that large events like this do not occur again, though he said it is a frequent occurrence for smaller boats. He said the monthly surcharge was put in place to encourage people to get insurance, though it is still currently not a requirement by the city.

“This highlights why it’s so important to have good vessel insurance,” he said. “It covers things like this and makes life easier like everybody.”

A GoFundMe to assist Etheridge’s recovery efforts was set up days after the incident in late December by Juneau resident Tom Brice, a longtime friend of Etheridge. As of this Thursday, it has raised just under $33,000 from 178 donors which will go toward aiding Etheridge in the recovery expenses.

• Contact reporter Clarise Larson at clarise.larson@juneauempire.com or (651)-528-1807. Follow her on Twitter at @clariselarson.

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