State agencies say they can’t afford to raise a 50-year-old research vessel that sank and fouled Willapa Bay a year ago, but legal action against the owner is moving forward.
“As far as I’m concerned, it’s a funding issue,” Pacific County Emergency Management Director Scott McDougall said Friday. “The Department of Natural Resources (DNR) has a derelict vessel fund, (but) very seldom do they have a problem of this magnitude, size and cost.”
The R/V Hero, a 125 foot research ship, was launched in 1968 to explore the freezing, violent waters of Antarctica. On March 4 last year, it started sinking into the Palix River, where it had been moored for along time near Bay Center. It is now almost entirely submerged.
The vessel leaked oil for several weeks, and cleanup crews removed at least 1,000 gallons of oily water, according to a State Attorney General’s affidavit.
The affidavit estimates that the cost of removing the Hero ranges from $453,000 to $2.5 million. Joe Smillie, a spokesman for DNR’s aquatics division, said removing the ship could cost around $1 million at the low end.
“At this point, the cost of getting it out would eat up our whole derelict vessel budget,” Smillie said. “Until we get special appropriation, there’s not much we can do.”
The area is an active channel for vessels and wildlife, and Smillie said the long-term effects of the Hero staying there could disrupt the flow of traffic.
On Feb. 5, the state Attorney General’s office filed misdemeanor and gross misdemeanor charges against Sun Feather LightDancer, the Hero’s owner. The charges are causing a vessel to become abandoned or derelict and discharging polluted materials into state waters.
Lightdancer bought the Hero in 2008 and moved it to Bay Center, a major oyster producing waterway. A 2013 multi-agency inspection of the vessel found the vessel’s engine room in a state of disrepair and an active leak in the starboard bow.
Department of Ecology inspectors make monthly visits to document the ship and make sure it’s not leaking any more oil. Barring more funding, they probably won’t be able to do much more, officials said.
While the vessel appears to be done leaking oil now, McDougall said people still want it out of the river.
“They (the Department of Ecology) believe the oil has mostly been contained or is off the vessel,” McDougall said. “There was never a whole ton on there to begin with. …anytime we have something like this in the water, there are huge concerns about it. But (are there) immediate concerns? No.”
In its prime, the Hero was a diesel-driven, sail-equipped trawler that operated as a “floating laboratory,” according to an article published in 1968 by the Antarctic Journal. It was named after a 230-foot sloop that 20-year-old Nathaniel Palmer sailed during a seal-hunting mission in 1820, when he discovered Antarctica.
It changed hands several times from 1984 through 2008, as various owners tried to restore the vessel. In 1984, a group of citizens established the nonprofit International Oceanographic Hero Foundation to preserve the Hero as an educational research center and museum. The foundation was later dissolved.