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Water | Environment

Costly Davy Crockett Oil Spill Could Have Been Prevented

PORTLAND — The U.S. Coast Guard and its contractors spent 10 months and $22 million last year removing the Davy Crockett from the Columbia River. The barge had broken apart during a botched salvage job and was spilling oil and PCBs into the river.


Workers prevented a major environmental disaster, but an EarthFix investigation has found that state and federal officials could have prevented the oil spill and the need for a multi-million-dollar cleanup had they enforced their orders to the vessel’s previous owners.

  • In 2005, Washington state officials ordered one owner to relocate the illegally moored barge.

  • In 2009, the U.S. Coast Guard ordered another owner to remove all the oil and fuel from the ship.

Neither owner complied, and neither agency made sure the orders were followed. Consequently, an illegally moored, 431-foot vessel that held 38,397 gallons of bunker oil and unknown quantities of diesel fuel and wastes was sold to its last owner, Bret Simpson. He is accused of trying to scrap the Davy Crockett in the water. He was indicted in September on criminal charges for allowing the oil to spill into the river and failing to report the spill. His trial is scheduled for August.

Materials Removed

  • 38,397 gallons bunker oil
  • 4,850 pounds asbestos
  • 1.6 million gallons of oily water
  • 1.25 million pounds debris and oily debris
  • 3.5 million pounds steel

Illegally Moored

By many accounts, the Davy Crockett was brought to the Columbia River in 1993 and was moored near Camas, Wash., until its demise. The former World War II Liberty ship, which had been converted into a barge, was tucked into a small cove.

Washington state became involved in 2005, when the Department of Natural Resources ordered the owner at the time, Mike Church of Port Gardner Tug & Barge, to relocate the Davy Crockett. Officials told Church that the vessel was illegally moored on state aquatic lands.

If Church refused to move the ship, state officials said they would charge him rent and turn the case over to the state attorney general for legal action.

Church did not move the ship. The state did not charge him rent. And the case never reached the attorney general.

Davy Crockett Owners

  • 1998 - May 2008
    Mike Church, Port Gardner Tug & Barge
  • May 8, 2008 to July 10, 2010 Retired Rear Admiral G. Dennis Vaughan Environmental Recycling Systems
  • July 10, 2010 to Present
    Bret Simpson

“At that time, it is my understanding that the boat was not in imminent danger of sinking,” said Kristen Swenddal, manager of Washington state’s Aquatic Resources Division. She worked for the division in 2005, but was not its manager then.

“What likely happened is that we had a number of other things that were more imminent danger and greater urgency, and we moved on to those. And by the time we got back to this boat, it had become a bigger problem,” said Swenddal, who oversees the state’s 2.6 million acres of aquatic lands.

Nothing to Worry About

In April 2008, three years after the state ordered Church to move the Davy Crockett, long-time Camas, Wash. resident Judy Jendro was driving along the old Evergreen Highway and noticed the ship had shifted in the water

“I really became concerned about it when it started listing to the starboard side, and it did look like there was a, looked like an oil tank maybe on top deck and that’s when I was really concerned, “ she said.

Jendro emailed Washington state officials. But they don’t handle derelict vessels larger than 200 feet, so they forwarded her email to the U.S. Coast Guard. Chief Marine Science Technician James “Pat” Griggs sent Jendro a reply:

“Despite appearances, the barge has an owner and valid insurance. … There is only a small amount of lube oil on the barge and the evaluation of the situation indicates that it does not pose an imminent threat to the environment at this time.”

A month later, on May 8, 2008, Mike Church sold the Davy Crockett to G. Dennis Vaughan. Vaughan, a retired Navy rear admiral, owned Environmental Recycling Systems, a ship dismantling business. He had tried to convince the people of Coos Bay to build a shipbreaking yard there, but the community rejected the idea.

Credit: Arashi Young/OPB

nIn a recent interview, Vaughan said his plan had been to tow the Davy Crockett to Mexico and recycle it there. His company has dismantled three ships in Mexico, he said. Vaughan, who grew up in an Oregon logging family, is now a consultant with Cassidy & Associates, a Washington D.C. government relations firm.

The Davy Crockett did not move in 2008.

Mike Church died in 2010. The Professional Mariner reported that he fell off a pier in Alaska, hit his head on a tugboat and died from his injuries.

Remove the Oil

In April 2009, a citizen driving along the Columbia River reported that one end of the Davy Crockett had broken loose and swung out into the river.

Davy Crockett2009 jpg
Photo: Washington Department of Ecology

Officials with Washington state’s Department of Ecology and the U.S. Coast Guard responded. They contacted Vaughan, who owned the ship.

State documents show that at that time, Vaughan told the officials he had been working with a contractor to salvage the ship. He also told them the ballast water and remaining fuel had been pumped off and only one tank of oily water remained on board.

Coast Guard records obtained through a Freedom of Information request show that Captain of the Port Frederick G. Myer took steps to make sure that was true. Records show that in April 2009, Myer sent Vaughan four pieces of correspondence:

  • A Captain of the Port Order
  • An Administrative Order
  • A Letter of Concern
  • A Letter Lifting the Captain of the Port Order

1. Captain of the Port Order, dated April 3, 2009. Ordered Vaughan to conduct a marine survey that would: - Attest to the condition of the ship and its mooring, - Attest to the materiel condition of the hull and, - Identify the location and volume of all petroleum products and waste on board.

Vaughan provided a marine survey report. It said the Davy Crockett contained:

  • 2,000 gallons of diesel mixed with water
  • 2,800 gallons of PF300 (bunker oil)
  • 200 gallons of oily waste

2. Administrative Order #1, dated April 13, 2009. This document shows that Capt. Frederick G. Myer determined the Davy Crockett represented a “substantial threat of a spill” and ordered:

  • Removal of all oils, oil products and oily wastes by May 13, 2009.
  • Submission of an invoice of oil disposal.

3. Letter of Concern, dated April 15, 2009. Myer warned Vaughan that “the presence of several thousand gallons of pollutants on board the vessel represents a substantial future liability that can be mitigated by prompt action now. “ He urged Vaughan to:

  • Remove the oil without delay, and
  • Perform a structural survey of the ship.

4. Captain of the Port Letter, dated April 17, 2009. This letter canceled the April 3, 2009 Captain of the Port Order. It did not mention the Administrative Order #1 or the Letter of Concern.

Vaughan said the Coast Guard inspected the Davy Crockett after it had been safely moored again and determined it was in good condition for its age. He also said the person who did the inspection wanted him to move the vessel to a dock, but moorage fees were “tremendous.”

“Where we were was just fine, so we just did that,” Vaughan said.

To date, neither the Coast Guard nor Vaughan has provided evidence that any oil or fuel was removed from the Davy Crockett in 2009.

Vaughan said he threw out much of the Davy Crockett paperwork after he sold the ship to Bret Simpson on July 2, 2010.

Coast Guard Captain Frederick G. Myer declined to comment for this story. He retired from the Coast Guard in 2010, after he was investigated for improper use of a government computer.

The Davy Crockett incident reports on the state’s Ecology website indicate that the oil and fuel listed on Vaughan’s survey were removed in 2009. But the state does not have any documentation to substantiate that claim, said Jim Sachet, a Department of Ecology spill response manager.

Brett VandenHeuvel, who directs the environmental watchdog group Columbia Riverkeeper, said he had not been aware of the Coast Guard’s 2009 orders.

“It’s mostly disappointing that we would continue to leave a toxic graveyard of a ship sitting on the banks of the Columbia when they knew there were problems,” VandenHeuvel said.

“It was not an accident; it’s more a failure of our agencies and the Coast Guard to oversee what’s happening on the Columbia, “ he said.

Davy Crockett-GoogleEarth-72
The Davy Crockett in August 2010. Source: Washington State Department of Ecology

Mystery Oil Sheens

In early December 2010, state officials were communicating with each other by email again about the Davy Crockett. The derelict vessel program had received an inquiry about the ship and an official with the Washington Department of Transportation wanted to know what steps he could take to have the ship removed from state-owned aquatic lands.

Later in December 2010, a mysterious oil sheen appeared in the Columbia River near the Interstate 205 bridge, downstream from Camas, Wash.

“We were not able to identify conclusively that it came from the Davy Crockett, but it was our suspicion,” Ecology’s Sachet said.

View Davy Crockett mooring location in a larger map

Another sheen was reported on Jan. 14, 2011, Sachet said.

“It was really foggy and we couldn’t identify where the sheen was coming from,” he said.

A sheen in that area also could have come from an upstream marina or a vehicle accident on the I-205 bridge, he said.

Later that month, however, another sheen led officials to the Davy Crockett.

“It wasn’t until we actually had the sheen and realized that the owner had been scrapping, cutting the ship up, that we looked back and said ‘Oh, hmmm. I bet those sheens we had in December of 2010 and early in January came from the Davy Crockett,” Sachet said.

By the end of January, the Coast Guard had taken over the cleanup job, which meant the federal Oil Spill Liability Trust Fund could be tapped to cover what grew into a $22 million cleanup.

The Environmental Costs

The environment costs of the Davy Crockett spill have not been calculated.

No one knows for sure how much oil and PCBs spilled into the river before the sheens were tracked to the Davy Crockett.

During the cleanup, Sachet described one of the impacts that pollution will have:

“The longer term effects of persistent chemicals like PCBs, that they can get into sediments, they can get into shellfish, and eventually find their way into the food chain, so that’s really the concern.”

Columbia Riverkeeper’s VandenHeuvel said the public will suffer the consequences.

“PCBs are highly dangerous to people, and we get them through eating fish and shellfish,” he said.

The Opportunity Costs

The cleanup carried other costs, too.

The $22 million from the Oil Spill Liability Trust Fund could have been used to remove oil from vessels that have no known owners and to mop up other spills.

The labor provided by dozens of federal and state employees during a 10-month period also represents a significant cost.

When the Davy Crockett cleanup began in January 2011, as many as 70 people worked on the project. The Coast Guard’s Pacific Strike Team and its Strike Team from Mobile, Ala., sent personnel, said Coast Guard Capt. Daniel LeBlanc, who led the response.

Many staffers from Washington and Oregon government agencies also put their regular work aside and focused on the Davy Crockett.

The opportunity cost was real.

“We would have had vessel inspectors getting on board to do more inspections,” said Sachet, who was Washington state’s on-scene-coordinator during the Davy Crockett incident.

He said the Department of Ecology also would have conducted more oil spill drills and spent more time working with companies to develop their oil spill contingency plans.

The Wake-Up Call

The lengthy and expensive cleanup of the Davy Crockett led the Coast Guard to organize a regional derelict vessel task force.

“The fact that a vessel can remain under the radar like the Davy Crockett did and virtually be salvaged in place without it coming to our attention or the state’s attention gave us the catalyst that we need to be more involved in overseeing derelict vessels, “ the Coast Guard’s LeBlanc said.

The task force members already have identified more than 30 abandoned or derelict vessels that could carry environment risks.

“I think the task force moving forward is a good thing, but we need to see results from that quickly,” VandenHeuvel said. “If it results in additional process only, instead of on-the-ground change, then it’s not successful.”

As a result of the Davy Crockett, Coast Guard aviators have begun regularly flying over the vessels identified by the task force, LeBlanc said.

“We want them to identify if there has been any new change to the appearance of the vessels,” LeBlanc said.

Knowing where the vessels are located is the first step. Identifying their owners is another. But how these vessels are handled will depend largely on whether government entities that have the power to take enforcement actions also have the will and the resources to follow through.

Tomorrow: The challenge of removing derelict or abandoned vessels.

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