For months the wood-hulled tug Chickamauga had been a problem at Bainbridge Island’s Eagle Harbor Marina. A historic heap of nautical nostalgia, it was almost 100 years old, was sitting low in the water and its owner hadn’t been seen in months, or, according to court records, paid the moorage.
In October, the Chickamauga sank. Earlier in the year, the Helena Star and the vessel Golden West, tethered to each other, sank in Pierce County’s Hylebos Waterway.
The state attorney general filed criminal charges against two of the vessels’ owners in Pierce County District Court on Wednesday. It may be the first time in state history that criminal charges have been filed in a case involving environmental damage, according to Attorney General Bob Ferguson. And it’s not likely to be the last, he said.
“We want to send a clear message that if you have a derelict vessel, we are going to hold you accountable,’’ Ferguson said.
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Three charges were filed against Stephen C. Mason, owner of the Helena Star: one count of abandoning a vessel, or causing it to become derelict; one count of discharging polluting substances into state waters; and one count of releasing hundreds of gallons of fuel and oil into state waterways.
According to the complaint, Mason’s company, Mason Marine Services, had an agreement with another company to salvage the Helena Star in February 2011. After receiving complaints about the condition of the Helena Star, the Coast Guard and the state Department of Ecology boarded the 167-foot vessel last February.
A few days later, the U.S. Coast Guard notified Mason that the vessel was a danger to the public and the environment, according to the complaint.
In January 2013, the Helena Star sank in the waterway, releasing hundreds of gallons of fuel and oil and taking another vessel, the Golden West, with it, the complaint said. The two vessels were tied together.
In a separate incident, Anthony R. Smith has been charged with one count of abandoning the Chickamauga; one count of polluting the waterway; and first-degree theft for failing to pay more than $5,000 in moorage fees.
According to the complaint, Smith paid first and last months’ moorage fees to Eagle Harbor Marina after piloting the Chickamauga there last February. The complaint said he refused to make other payments and failed to respond to requests by the harbor master to address the failing condition of his boat.
When it sank in October, it had 400 gallons of diesel fuel and 10 gallons of lube oil on board, according to the complaint.
Terence McGee, Smith’s lawyer, said he was surprised that not paying the moorage fee could become a theft charge.
Doug Crow, Eagle Harbor Marina manager, said he was “very, very pleased the state is stepping up to this’’ and had filed the criminal charges. Had it only been monetary fines, “They can bankrupt out of that, but you can’t do that with a criminal charge.’’
There are 153 other derelict marine vessels in the state that have been found to be potentially environmentally hazardous, according to Toni Weyman Droscher, spokeswoman for the state Department of Natural Resources.
The vessels represent an enormous problem to the state’s waterways, she said. Often people buy boats without any idea of how much it costs to maintain them.
State Department of Ecology (DOE) spokesman Larry Altose said environmental damage from the Chickamauga was minimized by the Eagle Harbor Marina staff and Bainbridge Island firefighters, whose quick response in placing booms around the sinking vessel contained the spilled fuel.
Salvage workers later raised the Chickamauga with a crane and patched the hull; the tug is floating again and pumps are attached to the hull to be sure it’s not again taking on water.
The Chickamauga is listed on the Washington Heritage Register and is believed to be the first diesel tug built in the United States.
In the case of the Chickamauga and Helena Star, cleanup will require $1 million, according to court records.
Nancy Bartley: email@example.com or 206-464-8522