SEATTLE — State law requires owners of abandoned or derelict vessels to pay the full costs of removing or disposing of the problem boats, but owners rarely do.
Since the Department of Natural Resources began a program to rid state waters of potentially dangerous vessels in 2003, vessel owners have only repaid about $28,000 — or less than 1 percent — of the total $8.3 million owed in the past decade, according to agency records.
"The state does get stuck with the bill," said Melissa Ferris, program manager of DNR's derelict vessels program. "It is frustrating," she added. "We try and track them down. We do a fair amount of work."
A handful of boat owners are currently on payment plans for roughly $161,000. The state agency is actively billing nearly $2 million in recovery costs from others. They've also sent nearly $3.4 million through the collections process.
In some cases, the boat has changed hands so many times that it's hard to prove who owns it, she said.
But even when the state has identified an owner, seeking repayment is difficult. In many cases, the agency hasn't been able to collect money — and likely won't — because owners didn't have any assets to go after.
"If we find an owner with assets, we will get judgments against the owners, but the vast majority (of them) don't have resources," Ferris said.
After a rusty 140-foot former fishing boat burned and then sank in Penn Cove off Whidbey Island two years ago, DNR had it removed and scrapped and later billed the boat's owner, Rory Westmoreland, for nearly $1.3 million in costs.
To date, the Westmoreland hasn't reimbursed the state for any of those costs, Ferris said.
Island County prosecutors last year charged Westmoreland with a misdemeanor for abandoning a derelict vessel. He failed to show up for an October hearing and a warrant was issued for his arrest, a spokeswoman with prosecutor's office said Thursday.
A listed number for Westmoreland could not be found.
The owner of the 180-foot New Star still owes the agency about $500,000, after DNR seized it early last year to prevent it from becoming a problem. The vessel had been docked at Port Ludlow, but the owner, George Marincin, was unable to carry out an initial plan to scrap it in Mexico.
Messages left at possible numbers for the owner were not immediately returned.
Junk vessels can pose public safety and environmental risks because they can break up, sink, or potentially leak oil, gas or other materials.
Last month, Attorney General Bob Ferguson announced criminal charges were filed against the owners of two boats — the 167-foot Helena Star and a 57-foot historic tugboat Chickamauga — that sank in Puget Sound, spilling hundreds of gallons of oil and other pollutants.
Ferguson said the state wants to send a clear message that boat owners will be held accountable for environmental damage.
Meanwhile, state lawmakers are trying to prevent derelict vessels from becoming a problem in the first place.
A bill introduced this year would create new penalties for failing to register a vessel and prohibit the sale of certain vessels that aren't seaworthy unless they're repaired or sold for scrap. House Bill 2457, which cleared a House committee last Tuesday, also imposes a fee on commercial vessels to fund the derelict vessels program.
"It speeds up the process of getting the boats out of our waters so they don't sit around," the prime sponsor, Rep. Drew Hansen, D-Bainbridge Island, told lawmakers at a hearing last month.
Some who spoke testified against parts of the bill they said would put too much responsibility on private moorage facilities. "If a vessel comes in and ties up at your dock, there's absolutely nothing you can do about it," said Warren Aakervik of Ballard Oil.
The bill is meant to build on legislation last year to address junk boats.
Under a law passed last year and set to take July 1, owners of larger vessels more than 40 years old would be required to get a boat pre-inspection before transferring ownership. They also have to report that information to DNR.
The agency is also currently working on a pilot program to take back junk boats that owners no longer want.
The state has removed more than 500 boats since the program began in 2003. But there are currently about 150 on the state's watch list.
Federal oil-spill money often covers the costs of raising the ship and getting rid of any oil or other potential pollutants. But the expense of removing the vessel and scrapping it typically falls to local governments and the state.