Cantwell, Kilmer Lead Bipartisan Call for GAO Review of Derelict Vessel Response Policies

WASHINGTON, D.C. – U.S. Senator Maria Cantwell (D-WA), and Representative Derek Kilmer (D-WA) led a bipartisan letter with a number of their colleagues calling for a formal study on the impact of derelict vessels to waterways and coastal communities.

In a letter sent to the Government Accountability Office (GAO) led by Senator Cantwell, Representative Kilmer and Senator Wicker, the members urged the agency to conduct a review of how the U.S. is working to stop the threat derelict vessels pose to economies and the environment. Specifically, the Members called for a review of how the United States Coast Guard, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) address abandoned and derelict vessels. The U.S. currently lacks the information required to identify, track, and respond to derelict vessels. Early notification of abandoned vessels is key to protecting our nation’s waterways and preventing disasters that impact businesses, wildlife, and people who recreate and live in communities close to our lakes, rivers, and oceans.

In the letter, the Senators and Members of Congress wrote: “Abandoned and derelict vessels pose a direct threat to both the safety of maritime navigation and natural resources.  Derelict vessels block waterways impacting marine transportation and some have also become major sources of pollution.” 

Derelict vessels threaten the environment and coastal economies through the discharge of oil and other hazardous materials and blocking navigation channels. In 2009, the derelict vessel the DAVEY CROCKETT spilled over a million gallons of oil into the Columbia River, costing taxpayers approximately $22 million dollars to clean up. Within just a couple of years of the DAVEY  CROCKETT disaster, the abandoned vessel, the DEEP SEA, caught fire, sank, and released oil into Penn Cove, Washington. That spill shut down shellfish farms for two months. One shellfish farmer alone documented his losses at $50,000 per day. According to the U.S. Department of Justice, the owner found guilty of abandoning the derelict vessel is liable for $2.8 million for the damage caused by the DEEP SEA.

“The last time the GAO reviewed abandoned and derelict vessel policies was in 1992. The report made federal policy recommendations to both Congress and the Coast Guard to highlight this issue and proposed preventative solutions,” the letter continued. “Yet, some twenty years later, derelict vessels continue to impact our economies and our environment.”

The bipartisan and bicameral letter was also co-led in the Senate by Senator Roger Wicker (R-MS.), and led in the House by Representative Kilmer (D-WA). Senators who signed onto the letter include: Cantwell, Wicker, Gary Peters (D-MI), Maize Hirono (D-HI), Lisa Murkowski (R-AK), Ed Markey (D-MA), Ron Wyden (D-OR), Patty Murray (D-WA), Brian Schatz (D-HI), Dan Sullivan (R-AK), and Thad Cochran (R-MS).

Members of the House of Representatives signing on in support include: Peter DeFazio (OR-04), Don Young (AK- At-Large), Duncan Hunter (CA-50), Suzan DelBene (WA-01), Denny Heck (WA-10), Carlos Curbelo (FL-26), Jim McDermott (WA-07), Adam Smith (WA-08), Jamie Herrera Beutler (WA-03), Dan Newhouse (WA-04), Suzanne Bonamici (OR-01), Walter Jones Jr. (NC-03), John Garamendi (CA-10), Rick Larsen (WA-02), Cathy McMorris-Rodgers (WA-05), and Mark Pocan (WI-02), Mark Takai (HI-01), Dave Reichert (WA-08), William R. Keating (MA-09), Curt Clawson (FL-19), Michael M. Honda (CA-17), Scott Peters (CA-52), Sam Farr (CA-20).  

Full text of the letter below.


The Honorable Gene L. Dodaro

Comptroller General

United States Government Accountability Office

441 G Street, NW

Washington, DC 20548

Dear Mr. Dodaro:

We are writing to request that Government Accountability Office (GAO) conduct a review of the United States Coast Guard, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the National Ocean and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and other agency programs related to abandoned and derelict vessels. Abandoned and derelict vessels pose a direct threat to both the safety of maritime navigation and natural resources.  Derelict vessels block waterways impacting marine transportation and some have also become major sources of pollution.  The last time the GAO reviewed abandoned and derelict vessel policies was in 1992 (GAO/RCED-92-235).  At the time, GAO found that these vessels posed a significant threat to the environment and coastal economies.  The report made federal policy recommendations to both Congress and the Coast Guard to highlight this issue and proposed preventive solutions.  Yet some twenty years later, derelict vessels continue to impact our economies, and our environment.

Derelict vessels pose a risk to our economy, but the level of risk varies greatly by early identification of derelict vessels, ability to track those vessels, vessel size, location, vessel discharge potential and owner responsiveness. The most significant derelict vessel pollution event in United States history occurred in the Columbia River in 2009. The DAVEY CROCKETT was an old 431 foot U.S. Navy ship that had been converted to a flat deck barge to eventually be sold for scrap metal.  The owner had not removed oil and fuel onboard the vessel before he started to dismantle it. The vessel partially sank at the dock and started leaking oil.  After the vessel was discovered to be leaking oil, the Coast Guard stopped the oil leak on the vessel and gave the owner a federal order to remove all the oil and fuel onboard.  The owner failed to respond and took no further steps to protect the barge from additional structural damage.  Two years later, the hull fractured and more oil and coolant leaked into the Columbia River. The DAVEY CROCKETT response and salvage operation cost the United States approximately $22 million over ten months. 1.6 million gallons of oil water mixture and nearly 39,000 gallons of bunker oil were recovered from the river.

When smaller derelict vessels are identified, federal and state responders are authorized to remove the source of pollution from the vessel before serious damage to the environment occurs. Though, often those vessels remain an annoyance to the public, marina or port authority.  One such case was the retired fishing vessel, the DEEP SEA that had been anchored in Penn Cove, Washington for over a year.  The owner was unresponsive and did not remove his vessel.  While the DEEP SEA started out as a nuisance, it turned into a catastrophic pollution event.  The vessel eventually caught fire, sank, and oil was released into the environment, prompting the Department of Health to close nearby commercial and recreational shellfish farms for over two months.  One commercial shellfish farmer documented that his company lost $50,000 every day his shellfish beds were closed, as well as the loss of subsequent crops.

The problem of derelict vessels is not limited to the Pacific Northwest. The 1992 GAO report found that 1,300 vessels were abandoned along the East and Gulf coasts and the eastern inland waterways.  Decades later, this problem persists and is growing with 280 derelict currently being tracked in Florida, alone.  The growing number of derelict and abandoned vessels has resulted in new challenges in addition to cleanup and removal.  One such impact is false alarm search and rescue cases. In places like the San Francisco Bay Area where abandoned and derelict vessels are abundant, derelict vessels can break free from their moorings.  In these cases, the Coast Guard must treat it as a vessel in distress—which means launching a search and rescue mission because it is unknown if anyone is onboard the vessel or has fallen overboard.  The Coast Guard has launched full scale search and rescue responses many times, only to find out hours later that the vessel was abandoned.  A typical three hour search and rescue response, including a Coast Guard HH-65 helicopter and a response boat medium, would cost taxpayers a minimum of $66,000 dollars.  In some instances, search and rescue cases will be much longer in duration and require additional assets which adds to the expense of these false alarm cases.  In addition to overall taxpayer costs, it is important to note that these cases can put Coast Guardsmen in hazardous conditions, which needlessly puts Coast Guard lives at risk.

The cases described above show clear gaps in authorities needed for the identification, prevention, and response of potential and realized oil and other pollution discharges from derelict vessels.  In the case of the DAVEY CROCKETT, the vessel was known for more than two years before major pollution occurred. Yet, the Federal government was still not able to prevent that major pollution event. To that end, we ask that the GAO conduct a formal study on this issue. In addition to further concerns as you see appropriate, we also specifically ask that you review the following emerging derelict vessel policy issues:

•         Based on Coast Guard, NOAA, EPA or other appropriate agencies’ data, what is the estimated number and type of abandoned and derelict vessels in the navigable waterways of the United States? What is the estimated discharge threat of those vessels?

•         To what extent does the Coast Guard or other Federal or state agencies maintain data on derelict and abandoned vessels including: vessel tracking information; previous owner penalties; previous state, federal and territorial enforcement actions; fines; and/or penalties levied on those owners?

•         To what extent do federal, state, tribal and territorial governments, ports and small harbors collectively or collaboratively track abandoned, derelict or problem vessels? 

•         To what extent does the Coast Guard or other agencies maintain data on abandoned and derelict vessel impacts to navigation, commercially valuable natural resources, and the environment?

•         What is the annual federal and state direct costs of abandoned and derelict vessel response, discharge response, and salvage operations? 

•         What is the current backlog of vessels identified as abandoned and derelict that have not been evaluated by the Coast Guard? What is the instance of repeat discharge and response operations from vessels that are identified and tracked as derelict vessels? 

•         An analysis of existing derelict and abandoned vessel state and federal laws, response and management programs including the identification of best practices.

•         A review of the 1992 GAO report recommendations. Which recommendations have/have not been implemented? Which recommendations have proven effective/ineffective at prevention and response of abandoned and derelict vessels?  What further policies can ameliorate this problem?

Thank you for your attention to this matter.  We look forward to further communications with GAO on this study.