Proposed new legislation in Washington aimed at holding owners of derelict vessels accountable

When Bret A. Simpson heard the hulking old barge Davy Crockett was for sale several years ago, “he saw the steel and he saw dollar signs,” said assistant U.S. Attorney Jim Oesterle.

Simpson, of Ellensburg, figured he could scrap the 400-foot former Navy ship and walk off with a tidy sum.

“He probably regrets that decision,” Oesterle said. Because in the midst of his ragtag scrapping operation, the Davy Crockett began spilling oil into the Columbia River near Camas, Washington.

On Monday, Simpson was sentenced to four months in federal prison plus eight months of home detention, community service and supervised release after pleading guilty to two criminal violations of the Clean Water Act.

The mess cost $22 million in federal and state funds to clean up. In January, Washington officials announced they were fining Simpson and his company, Principle Metals LLC, $405,000 related to the spill.

Simpson admitted he was informed about fuel oil and diesel left on the Davy Crockett before salvage operations began. However, prosecutors say he failed to have the oil removed before workers began cutting up the metal barge for scrap. When the first oil spilled in December 2010, prosecutors say Simpson failed to notify authorities and failed to adequately monitor and protect the barge.

This is the first time in Washington that a boat owner was sent to federal prison in such a case.

But Simpson is by no means unique as a boat owner. Hundreds of derelict or abandoned vessels sit on Washington’s waterways, in constant danger of drifting or sinking. When that happens, the state Derelict Vessel Removal Program is forced to step in, sometimes at a cost of millions of dollars. There is now broad agreement the state has neither the money nor the authority to truly address the problem.

Some of that may change. Both the House and the Senate are considering legislation this week that aims to prevent old vessels from turning into costly environmental problems in the first place.

“The bill changes the focus of the Derelict Vessel Removal Program to prevention over cleanup,” said Rep. Drew Hansen, D-Bainbridge, sponsor of the House bill.