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Frustration lingers over two derelict tugboats in Adak

  • Author: Annie Zak
  • Updated: May 20, 2016
  • Published May 19, 2016

Two derelict tugboats near Adak have become a source of tension between the city, state and the U.S. Coast Guard.

The boats, Redwing and Mecosta, broke from their pier at the Aleutian island community in a brutal storm in December. They went adrift, and were later placed on state-owned tidelands in Sweeper Cove, an inlet off Adak.

In a forceful letter to Coast Guard Commandant Paul Zukunft in April, Gov. Bill Walker said the Coast Guard "exceeded any authority it had" when it ordered the boats to be placed there.

Walker called the situation "unsafe and unacceptable," and said it required immediate attention. He also said the Coast Guard decided to put the boats in the cove despite notice that doing so was illegal and constituted trespassing, because the agency didn't get permits, insurance or bonding. The boats "were secured to a jetty by nothing more than a rope tied to a rock," Walker's letter said. One of the boats, the Redwing, has already sunk.

Environmental concerns as well as navigational hazards are at the heart of the issue. More than 43,500 gallons of oil were removed from the vessels, along with other materials, to mitigate environmental risks. But there is still worry over pollution.

The city of Adak and several state agencies are at a loss for what to do next to find a permanent solution.

Walker and Adak City Manager Layton Lockett said the Coast Guard didn't heed objections over putting the tugs on the tidelands in Sweeper Cove.

"What if it breaks away and starts drifting into navigable waters?" said Lockett. "This is creating a hazard of navigation."

In December, Lockett also wrote a letter to the Coast Guard.

"We are astounded to hear the Coast Guard, which we as a community appreciate and welcome on a regular basis, will do absolutely nothing to protect the waterways and will knowingly create a hazard to navigation," he wrote. "It appears that while we enjoy exemplary relationships with certain personnel of the Coast Guard, it is not enough to earn respect or consideration when a true emergency is 'at our front door.'"

Coast Guard Public Affairs Officer Lt. Veronica Colbath said in an email the owner of the boats, Adak resident Jack Stewart, is ultimately responsible. She also said the plan to put the tugs at Sweeper Cove was approved by a group that included the Coast Guard, the city of Adak, Stewart, and the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation.

"The Coast Guard conducted all activities to the full extent of our legal authority," she said. "The substantial pollution threat was removed and the responsible party/owner continues to be responsible for the vessels."

On Thursday, she said there was also a light sheen on the water near the Mecosta.

In this situation, it doesn't look like the owner will be able to take care of the boats.

"Typically in these cases, we put the pressure on the owner to step up and do something, and he has no resources," to deal with the two tugboats, said Clark Cox, a regional manager at the Alaska Department of Natural Resources.

Stewart bought the boats several years ago with plans to fix them up and perhaps live on one of them. He said he hasn't really used them since the purchase, and now there's nothing he can do to help the situation.

"I don't have that kind of money," said Stewart, who is 75, retired and also said he is ill. "It takes an organization with massive bonding power and insurance to move them."

Lockett said the removal process would likely be very expensive, especially because Adak doesn't have resources such as a crane or other towing vessels.

Both Adak and the the state have sent Stewart letters telling him he needs to fix the issue and he is financially responsible.

Graham Wood, a program manager at DEC, said the issue of derelict vessels left on state land is "more common than you'd think." He added while he can't speak for the Coast Guard, he believes its decision to leave the boats on state tidelands was based on funding.

"There's no good solution to deal with this problem," Wood said. "Until there's some kind of legislation to deal with these kinds of vessels statewide," it will continue to be an issue.

Walker's press secretary Katie Marquette said the governor sent the letter because he was coordinating responses from both DEC and DNR, and responding to concerns from constituents in Adak.

"I did not expect the governor to write a letter. I'm very thankful he did," Lockett said. "If we did write a letter, I think it would have gone pretty much unnoticed. As much as we tried to say, this is going to end badly, the warnings weren't heeded."

He said the city wants the vessels to be removed and destroyed, whether that means first relocating them to land or towing them somewhere else.

There aren't any public docks to tie the boats to in Adak, Lockett said. One issue with the boats is that if they drift or move, they might block off the town's small boat harbor, he said.

The Coast Guard doesn't agree. Colbath said via email "the vessels are well out of any traffic routes and do not pose a hazard to navigation by Coast Guard or Army (Corps.) of Engineer definitions."

The city is also worried about residual pollution that might still be on board.

"We're not trying to point fingers. We're all government entities, trying to work together," Lockett said. "We do respect the Coast Guard. But it's just on this one item, how we could be so far apart on trying to mitigate this hazard, is very perplexing."

The Coast Guard responded to Walker's letter in April and said its response to the situation was "consistent with Coast Guard policy and procedures and was conducted within the limits of our statutory authority under the Clean Water Act."

"In this case," the letter continued, "the limits of this authority did not support vessel removal and destruction as the pollution threat was able to be neutralized without damaging the vessels," adding that other options were also considered.

Those included putting the boats in another nearby spot, such as Finger Bay, but that was ruled out over environmental concerns that if the tugs broke free and were pushed to the mouth of a stream, they might harm salmon streams.

The only piers in Adak that could moor the tugboats are privately owned, Colbath said, and the owners "were very clear that the vessel owner was prohibited from mooring his vessels there." 

In his letter, Walker called for more federal resources to fix the situation.

"The state cannot tolerate an illegal trespass to its land, particularly one which is resulting in the unsafe spread of pollution," Walker wrote. "This situation will only continue to get worse if not immediately rectified."

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