For what seems like forever, two wooden islands have been rotting off Renton's shore, abandoned, polluted and sunken by storms. Back in the day...

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For what seems like forever, two wooden islands have been rotting off Renton’s shore, abandoned, polluted and sunken by storms.

Back in the day, they were dry docks for boats in need of repair. Now they’re a navigational nightmare — 200 feet long, 1,800 tons heavy, their floors submerged in water, their side walls rising from the surface of the lake.

How they got stuck in Lake Washington is a long, tangled story, involving three owners, five agencies, a delicate fish habitat and a federal Superfund site. This summer, the state will finally haul them away — but only after more than two years, and about $1.8 million in public money.

All that, to pick up someone else’s trash.

“We can’t afford to educate our children, but we can waste money on things like this,” Renton Mayor Denis Law said with disgust.

The city, eager to remove the dry docks from its waterfront view, has offered to foot part of the bill. So has King County. Just don’t ask for money from the owner, who has no permanent address, and told police he was incoherent when he signed the bill of sale.

Drifting into trouble

One winter night in 2005, the dry docks drifted across a critical line, from privately to publicly owned waters. They had only moved a couple of hundred feet, and state officials might not have noticed, if not for the anonymous caller who brought it to their attention.

The first thing to happen was a public-safety panic: One was threatening to break free from its mooring. The I-90 floating bridge was a few miles away, and high winds were headed in.

“If it went adrift on the lake in 50- or 60-mile-per-hour winds, it could have been disastrous,” said Melissa Montgomery, of the state Department of Natural Resources.

The state secured the dry docks, and attention turned to other matters — like removing them. It was complicated. There were concerns about disturbing the habitat of an endangered species, the junior chinook salmon. And concerns about spreading the contaminated sediment nearby, where creosote, a toxin, was once manufactured.

And then, of course, there was the question of jurisdiction. The dry docks are closest to Renton, but close enough to Mercer Island to raise questions. And because of the environmental and navigational issues, a variety of state and federal agencies got involved.

But really, state officials said, the main problem was money.

There’s a special pot of funds for removing abandoned boats from state waters — money collected from boat-registration fees. On average, that annual budget comes to about $500,000.

Dismantling the dry docks is likely to cost nearly four times that much.

Docks for a dollar

Relics from the World War II era, the dry docks made their first real move in 2002, when they were towed down from Lake Union. At the time, they were the legal property of one Elwood Latta, of Seattle. The bill of sale shows he bought them from Lake Union Drydock Co. for $1 each.

From there, the story gets muddy.

According to Latta, a retired fisherman, Lake Union Drydock had been trying to unload the docks, and he took them to satisfy a debt, figuring he could use them to fix up old boats. The company towed them to Lake Washington, he said, and paid for several months at Quendall Terminals, a former log-sorting operation in Renton.

In a prepared statement, Lake Union Drydock gave a decidedly different account. The company described Latta as a “dealer of marine equipment” who asked if he could buy the dry docks to use for storage near Everett. They were in fine condition while they were in the company’s custody, the statement said.

Whatever the case, they ended up at Quendall Terminals, private property that has such high levels of hazardous waste it’s been designated a Superfund site, meaning the federal government is responsible for cleaning up the toxins there, and farther out in the lake. And there the dry docks sat, for more than three years. Until suddenly one morning, they appeared, tied to pilings a couple of hundred feet away, in contaminated public waters.

“Blackout” victim?

While Mercer Island’s Marine Patrol worked to secure them, the city’s police tried to untangle the ownership issue.

They found William Hames, of Seattle, the last documented owner of the dry docks, in January 2006. He was living in his car. His story was this:

Several months earlier, Latta had offered him $50 for a favor. They traveled to a store where Hames signed a document, and it was notarized. Then Latta took him home. Hames told police in a statement he was in an “alcoholic blackout” at the time.

The only problem with that story, Latta said, is that it’s completely false. It was Hames who approached him, full of big ideas about the docks. And he wasn’t drunk at the time, Latta said. Not that the state seems to care.

“Now they’re blaming me, which is kind of tough,” he said. “Now I’ve got to get an attorney.”

Hames could not be located for comment recently. But according to the bill of sale, he bought the dry docks for $10.

Blight on the waterfront

The whole thing is infuriating to Renton officials, who have been trying for years to rebrand the city’s waterfront.

Finally, they see some success — the Seattle Seahawks building a training facility, a developer creating a luxury lakefront community called Barbee Mill. And still, the dry docks sit several hundred feet from shore, pale brown carcasses, stains running down their sides.

“As soon as somebody crashes into them, we’re all going to get named in a multimillion-dollar lawsuit,” said Law. “That’s the next thing to come down the pike.”

Last year, at Renton’s urging, the state Legislature set aside $1 million to remove them. By law, the state can’t pursue “responsible parties” for payment until the dry docks are dismantled. The federal government has no such constraints; its investigators are looking into violations of the Clean Water Act.

As for getting rid of the ruin, the state says that will happen sometime this summer, after four permits are approved, after the seasonal “fish window” makes it safer for salmon, after the project has gone to bid, and the final cost estimates are in, and the contractor has been chosen.

Renton, meanwhile, is waiting.

Cara Solomon: 206-464-2024 or csolomon@seattletimes.com