Owner pleads guilty to abandoning sunken vessel in Tacoma

The owner of a derelict ship that sank in Tacoma’s Hylebos Waterway last year has pleaded guilty to charges of abandoning the ship and polluting state waters, according to Washington State Attorney General Bob Ferguson.

Stephen Mason, owner of the 167-foot derelict vessel the Helena Star, accepted responsibility Thursday and was sentenced to 20 days of confinement (which may be served on electronic home monitoring) and two years’ probation, and is ordered to repay the state $300,000 towards the total cost of $1.25 million to remove the sunken vessel, according to Ferguson. As part of the agreement, Mason will cooperate with the Washington State Department of Natural Resources’ efforts to secure the remaining restitution from other Helena Star investors.

“Derelict vessels cause substantial environmental damage and cost taxpayers millions of dollars,” said Ferguson. “If you break our state laws and pollute our environment, we will hold you accountable.”

The Helena Star was built in the mid-1940s, arrived in Seattle in 1978 after it was seized during an at-sea marijuana bust, and was moved to Tacoma three years ago after it was purchased by California investors, according to Washington State Department of Ecology officials. The investors hired Mason to scrap the vessel on his property adjacent to the Hylebos Waterway. Mason did not finish the job, instead leaving the vessel dormant on his property as it continued to deteriorate, according to Ferguson. This ship ultimately sank near the southern end of the Hylebos Waterway in Tacoma in January 2013, releasing hundreds of gallons of fuel and oil into the water.

The Washington State Attorney General’s Office filed criminal charges against Mason in January 2014. The charges included one count of causing a vessel to become abandoned or derelict and one count of discharge of polluting matters into state waters. The maximum penalty for abandoning the vessel is 90 days in jail and up to $1,000 in fines plus restitution and assessments. The maximum penalty for polluting the waters with the leaking fuel and oil is 364 days in jail and a $10,000 fine as well as restitution and assessments.

The Helena Star was towed out of the Hylebos Waterway in July and dry docked in Seattle for scrapping. The dollars recovered for the scrap steel—though not nearly enough to pay for the salvage and clean up process—will go back to the state Derelict Vessel Removal Program.

The restitution will replenish state funds used to remove and clean up the sunken Helena Star. The Washington State Department of Natural Resources Derelict Vessel Removal Program will receive $250,000, while the other $50,000 will reimburse the Washington State Department of Ecology’s Coastal Protection Fund, which is used to clean up oil spills.

Washington state officials note the Hylebos Waterway was listed as a Superfund site 30 years ago following the discovery of widespread contamination from more than a century of heavy industrial activity. A massive cleanup and restoration effort has been underway since 2002. Keeping derelict vessels from adding to the contamination is critical to making progress on cleanup, according to Washington State Department of Ecology officials.

“I deeply appreciate Attorney General Ferguson’s work to ensure owners of derelict vessels are held accountable for their damage to the environment and the costs they inflict on Washington taxpayers,” said Washington State Commissioner of Public Lands Peter Goldmark, who directs the Washington State Department of Natural Resources. “This work is vital to the clean up and restoration of Puget Sound.”

“Derelict vessels are the cause of thousands of gallons of fuel released to Washington waters every year,” added Washington State Department of Ecology Spills response manager David Byers. “The money we’ll receive from this case will go directly toward restoration work — rebuilding public resources damaged by spills.”

To read the Tacoma Daily Index’s complete and comprehensive coverage of the Golden West and Helena Star sinking in Tacoma’s Hylebos Waterway, click on the following links: