Background on Washington’s Derelict Vessel Removal Program
Legal Authorities, and How the Program Works
Washington’s 2001 Legislature authorized the use of money in the state toxics account for a grant program for local governments to clean up and disposal of hazardous substances on abandoned and derelict vessels. This grant is administered by the state Department of Ecology. The 2002 Washington State Legislature then passed the Derelict Vessel Act, which provides certain local and state agencies with the authority and funding for the removal and disposal of derelict and abandoned vessels from the waters of the state.
Washington’s Department of Natural Resources (DNR) is manager and steward of the 2.6 million acres of state-owned aquatic lands. Prior to the 2002 legislation, DNR had to rely on cooperation by the vessel owners, lengthy legal approaches such as trespass and nuisance abatement actions, and federal actions to address derelict vessels. Both the United States Coast Guard and the Army Corps of Engineers have federal authority to address derelict and abandoned vessels; but that authority is constrained. The Coast Guard addresses vessels that pose a substantial threat to the environment or federal navigation channels. These problems usually are mitigated without removing and disposing of the vessel (by removing the majority of the pollutants or moving the vessel out of the navigation channel, respectively), and the Coast Guard does not have authority to remove and dispose of a vessel once the immediate threat has been removed except in rare cases. Likewise, the Corps has authority to remove floating or sunken debris, but only if that debris is a hazard to navigation in a federally maintained navigation channel.
DNR has created an inventory of derelict and abandoned vessels in the waters of Washington State. In addition, criteria have been developed to prioritize these vessels for removal. Because the funding of the derelict vessel removal account is limited each year, these criteria include consideration of environmental protection, threats to human health and safety, as well as threats to navigation, so the most damaging vessels can be removed first.
We need everyone’s help to identify and locate derelict vessels. If you would like to report a vessel, please download the Reporting Form and fill out the form with as much information as possible, and then email, fax or mail it to the Derelict Vessel Removal Program.
How the Derelict Vessel Removal Program Works
An Authorized Public Entity—most of which are public agencies that own or manage aquatic lands—has the discretionary authority to remove and dispose of a vessel within its jurisdiction that has become abandoned or derelict. These authorized entities are: state Departments of Natural Resources, Fish & Wildlife, Parks and Recreation Commission (State Parks); metropolitan park districts; port districts; any city town or county with aquatic ownership. Washington’s DNR manages the program, maintains vessel inventory, and facilitates other agencies' removal and disposal actions. As an Authorized Public Entity, DNR also removes vessels from state-owned aquatic lands. If a vessel is not on state-owned aquatic lands, DNR still may act with permission of an agency with regulatory jurisdiction over the area.
Taking action on a Derelict or Abandoned Vessel
There are two ways that a public entity can take action on a vessel—temporary possession and/or custody. Temporary possession is an emergency action. If a vessel is in immediate danger of sinking, breaking up, blocking navigation channels or posing imminent threat to human health or safety, including the threat of environmental contamination, a public entity may take control of the vessel to mitigate the posed threat if the owner is unwilling or unable to do so. Temporary possessions are followed by the custody procedure described below, unless the vessel owner takes responsibility for the vessel, which includes paying any costs owed.
Prior to taking custody of a vessel, the public entity must attempt to notify the vessel's owner (if known) of its intent to remove the vessel. Notice must be mailed to the last known address of the owner on record, posted clearly on the vessel, printed in a newspaper in the county in which the vessel is located, and published on DNR's website. All notices must include information specified in RCW 79.100.040, including the procedures that must be followed to reclaim possession of the vessel, the owner's possible financial liabilities, and the rights of the authorized public entity after custody of the vessel is obtained.
Once the Authorized Public Entity takes custody of a vessel, that entity may use or dispose of the vessel in any environmentally sound manner with preference given for methods that derive value from the vessel. If a monetary value can be derived, then that amount will be subtracted from the costs incurred by the response to the vessel. If the vessel sells for more than is owed, the profit goes to pay off any liens on the vessel and the remaining funds go back in to the Derelict Vessel Removal Account. If the vessel has no salvageable value, then the public entity must use the least-costly environmentally sound reasonable disposal option.
The owner of a derelict or abandoned vessel is responsible for reimbursing the authorized public entity for all costs associated with the removal and disposal of that vessel. These costs include administrative costs and costs associated with any environmental damage caused by the vessel.
An owner seeking to redeem a vessel that is in the custody of an authorized entity, or wishing to contest the amount of money owed, must bring an appeal action within the appeal period. The appeal period is usually 10 to 30 days, depending on the type of entity involved RCW 79.100.120. If an appeal is not filed in a timely manner the right to a hearing will be waved. People who cause a vessel to become abandoned or derelict on the waters of the state may be found guilty of a criminal misdemeanor. (RCW 79.100.110).
Derelict Vessel Removal Account
The derelict vessel removal account was also created by the 2002 Washington State Legislature. It is funded by portion of the Washington Recreational Vessel Registration fee and the Foreign Vessel Registration fee. Expenditures from this account may be used to reimburse Authorized Public Entities for up to 90 percent of the costs associated with removing and disposing of abandoned or derelict vessels, when the owner of the vessel is unknown or unable to pay. The entity may contribute its 10 percent of removal costs through in-kind services. Priority for use of the account's funds must be given to the removal of vessels that are in danger of breaking up, sinking, presenting environmental risks, or blocking navigation channels. The account balance on the website is updated quarterly. To verify available funds, public entities should contact the Program prior to starting a large removal to verify available funds.
In addition to being addressed in the Derelict Vessel Act, vessels at moorage facilities are covered by state laws specific to the particular type of facility. Public moorage facilities are covered by the Port Moorage Facilities RCW 53.08. If a public moorage facility has an abandoned vessel, they may still follow their existing procedures for removal and then request reimbursement from the Derelict Vessel Removal Account. Private moorage facilities are covered by RCW 88.26. Under the statute, they may take custody of a vessel but they cannot receive Derelict Vessel Removal Program funds unless they contract with the local Authorized Public Entity for removal of the vessel. The public entity is eligible for the funds.
Authorized Public Entities may sell vessels acquired through the Derelict Vessel Act. They may require a minimum bid or a letter of credit to discourage future re-abandonment of the vessel. Any profits from the sale of a derelict or abandoned vessel after deduction of costs will go into the derelict vessel removal account. People wishing to purchase such a vessel should contact the authorized public entity directly. If DNR sells a vessel, it generally is sold through Washington State Surplus.
For more information see the Derelict Vessel Removal Program Guidelines. Sample custody postings are included in the Guidelines.