State regulators are issuing dozens of trespass notices for old vessels sitting in the Kuskokwim River. Some of the barges and boats pose navigational and safety hazards, while others are just tied up on state land without a permit. Officials say it’s the first step toward getting owners to take responsibility for vessels that are causing problems.
Barbara Anvil has a longtime fish camp right below where barges park in Steamboat Slough, just outside Bethel. She says, besides getting in the way of people, the barges and other vessels are blocking fish.
“We noticed that our fish aren’t coming up that slough anymore. We get less and less each year. We used to be able to put out our net and get a whole bunch of ‘em,” said Anvil.
Earlier this month, state officials and the U.S. Coast Guard met a packed house of Kuskokwim residents who want to get rid of vessels that are piling up and causing problems. Emily Haynes, with the Department of Natural Resources outlined the basic concerns:
“Number one, contaminants aboard. And that’s where we all play a factor. Navigability, in Steamboat Slough, mostly,” said Haynes.
DNR counted 20 vessels stored in Steamboat Slough during their visit, up five from last year. Historically, the slough has been a parking and storage spot for boats and barges, but as Bethel has grown, the number of vessels has increased. One high profile barge named ‘Shanks Ark’ has been stuck in the middle of the waterway for more than a year. The barge is owned by Bethel-based Kuskokwim Lighterage and Trucking and was being operated by Faulkner Walsh Constructors, according to DNR. The two companies disagree about who is responsible for removing it. Haynes says the first step towards getting the barge out of way is issuing trespass notices for vessels in the slough.
“It’s not very widely known that we issue permits for barge storage or any vessel storage on state-owned lands. But that is something that we do. And now we’re working towards gaining compliance from all of these vessel owners,” said Haynes.
There has not been much enforcement, until now. And the process takes time. Bob Carlson works in the Bethel Department of Environmental Conservation‘s office. He says DEC and DNR officials contacted Faulkner Walsh about another tug boat that grounded in Steamboat Slough in 2012, named the ‘Saint Michael’, which was leaking fuel. He says he followed protocol and wrote the company a letter asking for action, but they did not respond. It took another year to get a DEC notice of violation issued.
“They removed some of the contamination this spring. They removed the engines and some of the contamination. Some still remains in the boat. We were up there yesterday. So the next step would be, in my agency, a referral for enforcement. We would ask the Department of Law to take criminal or civil action against the company. We have not done that,” said Carlson.
Martin Andrew is president for the tribe in Kwethluk. He says a gravel barge named ‘Delta Chief’, also belonging to Faulkner Walsh sunk near his village two years ago and is a navigational hazard. He also says the barge, which contains heavy equipment and fuels, sits right above a popular source of drinking water.
“Last December when I went out and got my water from our communal watering hole, I was shocked to see a sheen of oil in the watering hole and I told my boys, I don’t think we’re going to be getting our water from here anymore,” said Andrew.
At the federal level, the Coast Guard gets involved when there’s pollution or if the barge becomes a navigational obstruction. They can issue fines, up to $40,000 per day or three times the cost of cleaning up the mess. Coast Guard Petty Officer Patrick Brown says the law is intended to force responsible parties to clean up.
“At the end of the day, our job is to make sure the cleanup gets done. So if that means we compel the responsible party or the owner of the boat to do so then that’s what we’ll do. If they’re not available, can’t find them or they just won’t clean up then we’ll go ahead and do it ourselves,” said Brown.
DNR says they began to post trespass notices for 33 vessels in the Bethel area during their visit. Alaska DNR has never pursued a civil case or criminal charges for abandoned or derelict vessels obstructing navigable waters, according to officials, but they’re considering it if Faulkner Walsh does not remove the vessels. Representatives from the company did not attend the public meeting, but did meet in private with DNR, DEC and Coast Guard officials during their visit to Bethel. When asked during a phone interview how many vessels the company has in Steamboat Slough, Harry Faulkner, one of the owners, disputed the DNR’s count of around 10 vessels and had this to say but would not provide
“I know what the count is, I own them,” said Faulkner, but he did not provide an exact count before ending a phone interview.
The Coast Guard can, through a less lengthy administrative process, issue a ‘notice of federal action’, their first step toward fines they hope will compel Faulkner Walsh to clean up their vessels that are polluting.