American Challenger fishing vessel to be freed from rocks on Marin coast
A wrecked fishing vessel that many feared would be left to break apart on the rocks off the northern Marin coast is to be salvaged after all, removing an eyesore and ensuring debris and toxic substances don’t stray into the surrounding Greater Farallones National Marine Sanctuary.
The 90-foot American Challenger will be refloated and towed away later this summer, according to the California Department of Fish and Wildlife’s Office of Spill Prevention and Response.
The decommissioned commercial vessel grounded north of Dillon Beach on March 6 after running adrift under tow from Puget Sound to Mexico, where it was to have been scuttled.
The tugboat operator towing the decommissioned vessel said later that a steel shackle connecting the boats failed in Bodega Bay, causing the American Challenger to drift into shore. A Coast Guard crew was monitoring it at the time.
Investigators saw some oil sheening in the water around the boat when it first grounded, but the bulk of the fuel had been drained from the tanks before the American Challenger left Port Angeles, Washington.
That left in question whether government funds would be available to cover removal of the wreckage.
Neither American Challenger nor the tugboat Hunter was insured. Both are owned by the same Florida man, Felix Vera, who was unable to cover the costs himself.
About $2.3 million already has been spent on the initial response and costs related to the stranding, including oil booms, environmental assessments, shoreline surveys and Coast Guard costs, according to the Office of Spill Prevention and Response.
The operation has been financed through the federal Oil Spill Liability Trust Fund and a state Oil Spill Response Fund, but officials in March said those sources weren’t available for salvage costs, absent threat of a fuel leak.
A spokesman for the state office, Eric Laughlin, said that further investigation yielded evidence of a variety of substances on board including petroleum products, lubricants, solvents, PCBs, heavy metals, including lead, and other chemical compounds. That, along with the watercraft’s location in a national marine sanctuary and the totality of environmental risk warranted intervention by the federal Oil Spill Liability Trust Fund, he said.
“Removing these contaminants is obviously crucial to ensuring the coastal environments are protected,” said Laughlin.
The Environmental Protection Agency, Region 9, will foot the bill for breakdown and disposal of the vessel, a cost estimated at around $1 million, he said.
“Funding is secured,” Laughlin said.
The decision is a relief to environmental watchdogs who have seen other abandoned vessels languish, their wreckage eventually scattering in the waves or left for volunteer crews to collect.
But the American Challenger’s location several hundred feet offshore at the base of a steep cliff, with no access from shore or water, makes it a particularly difficult puzzle. Survey crews have been hoisted aboard by helicopter, and the vessel has shifted during heavy surf, though the steel hull has withstood the waves.
Drones and survey crews have been monitoring the vessel by air while it remained wedged in the rocks.
“Hopefully, soon, that boat will go away,” said Richard James, a devoted coastal guardian.
Cea Higgins, executive director of Coastwalk and the California Coastal Trail Association, voiced hope the current predicament would encourage state lawmakers to bring legislation requiring commercial vessels to have insurance. She also called for a better framework to deal with abandoned and derelict vessels more quickly, given their potential to create irreversible damage in a sensitive environment.
The American Challenger ‘is kind of the poster child of all the challenges and areas and room for improvement of shipwrecks on the California coast,” said Higgins, a member of the National Marine Sanctuary’s Advisory Council. “What I hope is it’s going to bring a lot of attention to the ways we can improve, prevent and fund these kinds of incidents going forward, because we need to improve.”
Officials representing the Marin County Sheriff’s Office, the U.S. Coast Guard, the EPA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and state Office of Spill Prevention and Response will spend the next month or so on a comprehensive plan to refloat the American Challenger so it can be moved off the rocks and towed away, Laughlin said.
Petaluma-based Lind Marine, which had consulted on the shipwreck early on, has been contracted to break down the vessel for salvage at its Vallejo shipyard later this summer, he said.
You can reach Staff Writer Mary Callahan at 707-521-5249 or firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter @MaryCallahanB.