Wash. removes, scraps sunken ship from Tacoma’s Hylebos Waterway

Officials at the Washington State Department of Natural Resources and the Washington State Department of Ecology confirmed Monday the 167-foot Helena Star, which sank in Tacoma’s Hylebos Waterway 18 months ago, has been raised, patched, and towed to Seattle, where it is being scrapped and recycled.

Escorted by the 62-foot landing craft Prudhoe Bay, the tug Red Bluff arrived in Tacoma late last month to tow the Helena Star out of the Hylebos Waterway, up Puget Sound, through the Ballard Locks in Seattle, and into Lake Union, where it was to be scrapped at the Stabbert Yacht & Ship drydock. Throughout the journey, a four-person crew remained onboard the Helena Star to monitor for water leaks and to assist with mooring lines. A team that included the Washington State Department of Natural Resources, Washington State Department of Ecology, U.S. Coast Guard, Tacoma Fire Department, and Global Diving and Salvage collaborated on the project.

Work to remove the derelict vessel was postponed in January due to concerns over migrating salmon, as well as the time frame required for the Washington State Department of Natural Resources to select a contractor and obtain the necessary environmental permits to remove the derelict ship. Those concerns were resolved when a contractor was selected earlier this year, and the Washington State Department of Fish and Wildlife lifted restrictions on in-water work in July.

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 new owners, according to Washington State Department of Ecology officials. In October, a contractor hired by the Washington State Department of Natural Resources removed the 130-foot Golden West from the Hylebos Waterway. Both vessels were chained together when they began to sink on Jan. 25, 2013.

“The sinking of the Helena Star shines a light on the continuing problem of derelict and abandoned vessels in Washington State,” said Washington State Department of Natural Resources Aquatic Lands Division assistant manager David Palazzi. “We commend the federal, state, local, public, and private partners that successfully brought an end to this unfortunate and environmentally destructive incident, and we will continue to work with partners to deal with vessels before they pollute and risk human health and navigational safety.”

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.

A special one-time legislative appropriation to the Washington State Department of Natural Resources Derelict Vessel Removal Program paid for the removal project. The dollars recovered by Stabbert Yacht & Ship for the scrap steel — though not nearly enough to pay for the anticipated $2 million salvage and cleanup process — will go back to the state Derelict Vessel Removal Program.

“Derelict vessels continue to be an issue in our state and pose a serious threat to public safety and the health of marine and fresh water,” said Washington State Department of Ecology Spills Program manager Dale Jensen. “Along with the financial burden associated with owning older, failing vessels, major potential environmental hazards also exist.”

The Office of the Washington State Attorney General is pursuing prosecution of the Helena Star’s owner for the costs associated with the response, salvage, and scrapping of the vessel.

“It creates a serious public health risk and environmental damage when owners abandon vessels containing hazardous waste in Washington State waters,” said Washington State Attorney General Bob Ferguson. “If you break our state laws and pollute our environment, we will hold you accountable.”

Because the public is on the hook for this and other large vessel cleanups and removals where the owner does not pay the expense, the 2014 Legislature revised state law to increase boat-owner responsibility for their vessels and prevent large, old vessels from being passed to people who cannot afford to address their needs. The legislation, which took effect this summer, also offers many small-vessel owners an option to turn over their boats to the State for disposal before they sink and pollute the waters.

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: