Abandoned former Coast Guard vessel sinks in Columbia River, costing taxpayers

Author: Galen Ettlin, Morgan Romero

PORTLAND, Ore. — One of two large vessels moored off Portland’s Hayden Island has sunk into the Columbia River and could cost taxpayers more than $1 million to remove.

The ship is a decommissioned Coast Guard vessel called the Alert. The Coast Guard sold the 1920s-era boat in the 60s. It eventually became property of the nonprofit Columbia Watershed Environmental Advocates.

However, when the owner died, the nonprofit became defunct, and two boats were left abandoned.

“This exemplifies the broken dreams of many people,” said Scott Smith, emergency response planner for the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ). “[The Alert] got into worse and worse condition.”

State agencies and the Coast Guard learned the Alert sank on Sunday.

“A boat in that condition floating there is always at a risk of sinking,” Smith said.

Smith is part of the team that has assessed the abandoned Alert and neighboring tugboat, the Sakarissa.

DEQ, the Coast Guard, and the Oregon Department of State Lands (DSL) worked to remove thousands of gallons of hazardous material, which included oil, chemicals, and batteries.

“I’m glad we did that,” Smith said, noting removal happened before the boat sank.

Agencies are still assessing the area but said so far, it appears the Alert is not leaking significant pollution into the river.

The Coast Guard noted a slight sheen on the water is likely from oily residue on the now submerged machinery, but not from leftover materials.

Liane Oneill with DSL said the Alert is simply one example of this issue.

“It’s a big growing problem across Oregon,” she said.

Derelict boats litter state waterways. Some like the Alert and Sakarissa become home to transient people. Others sink or end up washed up on shorelines.

“There is no easy solution,” Oneill said.

The challenge lies in funding. It can cost about $1 million dollars to tow away a large floating vessel and break it down.

That cost increases substantially if a boat sinks like the Alert.

“Can double or quadruple the cost,” Smith said.

Oregon does not have a program or dedicated fund for this type of removal. Smith said Washington does.

“It’s a shame,” Lt. Lisa Siebert said.

Siebert works as a supervisor of the Incident Management Division of the U.S. Coast Guard in the Portland area.

She said the Coast Guard already spent about $300,000 to remove waste and hazardous materials on board the two ships. She noted the Coast Guard does not have the means to fund removing the Alert from the Columbia, sunken or not.

“It sets a bad precedent to have to do that for every vessel all over the United States,” Siebert said.

The cleanup cost then defaults back to the state and taxpayers.

“Current funding levels for all the agencies involved in derelict vessels would take something like 200 years to remove all the derelict vessels here,” Smith said.

“We need the financial resources in order to do these types of removals,” Oneill agreed.

“It’s going to take help from everybody,” Siebert added.

The Coast Guard is monitoring the sunken vessel on a daily basis to ensure it is not shifting with weather and the tides.

Siebert said it may have sunk for several reasons, but guessed that people leaving hatches open would have partially filled the boat with water from recent heavy rainfall.

With people living in and around the neighboring boat, she hopes agencies can collaborate to procure funding soon to remove the ships.

“Prevent this happening on the Sakarissa,” Siebert said.

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