My Turn: Responsibility for abandoned and derelict vessels in Alaska

  • By PHILLIP GRAY
  • Thursday, October 8, 2015 1:07am
  • Opinion

By now, most of us in Juneau know that we have a sunken 96-foot tugboat in Gastineau Channel across from the yacht club. During a 0.1-foot tide recently, it could be seen six to 10 feet above the surface of the water, like an emerging city dump with pieces twisted, ready to break off and drift up on the beach. At least three pieces have already broken off and floated to the surface; they can be seen inside the containment boom on the side of the north jetty of Aurora Harbor. Another section with a porthole is on the side of rip rap just north of downtown Juneau.

After contacting the U.S. Coast Guard and Alaska Department of Natural Resources, it appears that the owner of the sunken tug has denied ownership. The vessel was uninsured.

We must have liability insurance on our automobiles to drive in Alaska. It seems reasonable to require liability insurance of vessel owners, at least for those anchoring on Alaska tidelands.

I had no idea a person could sink his or her vessel in Alaskan waters and walk away leaving the state with the responsibility and great expense of raising and disposing of a derelict vessel. It appears that Alaskan laws regarding responsibility for derelict vessels are weak, and we are accumulating these junk vessels around the state. The sunken vessel creates hazards to navigation.

I recently checked a website that showed 31 derelict vessels and barges in the Bethel area (Steamboat Slough).

Anyone who thinks we do not have a problem should visit this website: www.AlaskaCleanHarbors.org. Click on the link: Resources — abandoned and derelict vessels.

No one should be able to sink or ground a vessel without being held accountable for pollution and costs of removal/disposal of a vessel. If it floats, the owners should have liability insurance sufficient for salvage and/or disposal, whether the vessel is motorized or not. Barges, tugs or any vessel over 25-feet (plus or minus) should be insured, at least for liability.

The tugboat Challenger that sank in Gastineau Channel has been anchored there since last November. The owner was required to get a permit from the Department of Natural Resources after 14 days to remain anchored on state tidelands, but did not do so.

I live on North Douglas Highway; the Challenger was anchored about 200 yards from my house, easily visible day or night. It had no navigation lights, no sign of lights aboard at night, I saw no one going aboard, starting the engine or tending to maintenance of the vessel in the past nine months. This seems to me like gross negligence, and I would think the state could recover costs for raising and disposal of the vessel. This usually does not happen because of the difficultly of recovering litigation or recovery costs.

Will we have a junk sunken vessel in the channel near downtown Juneau for years, a hazard to navigation and an eyesore appearing above the surface of the water on low tides?

The state cannot afford to raise and dispose sunken derelict vessels and barges. We need tougher laws to deal with the irresponsible people or business who are dumping vessels/barges on state tidelands and public waterways. Proof of liability insurance should be required before a permit is issued to anchor on public tidelands.

Anyone with suggestions for solving the problem of derelict vessels in Alaskan waters should contact their state representatives and senators, and U.S. Congress representatives and senators. We cannot afford to be cleaning up after those who don’t clean up after themselves.

• Phillip Gray lives in Douglas.

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