Crime & Courts

Feds sue 'Bering Sea Gold' star over costs of retrieving sunken vessel in Cordova

The federal government filed a civil lawsuit on Monday against a gold dredge captain who has appeared on Discovery Channel's "Bering Sea Gold," alleging he refused to take care of his 117-foot landing craft that sank in the Cordova harbor.

Federal prosecutors say it cost $1.6 million to recover the watercraft Sound Developer. The vessel leaked fuel into harbor waters and was littered with debris, according to a civil complaint. More than 450 gallons of various oils were spilled, reported the U.S. Coast Guard.

The government is asking for a judgment against John Mehelich for removal costs plus interest, among other cash penalties.

Mehelich bought the steel-hulled boat, originally built in 1960, a decade ago and moored it at the Cordova harbor's H dock. A civil complaint states that "the vessel eventually became an unauthorized dump site for waste oil and other debris because defendant Mehelich left the vessel unattended and unsecured."

Cathy Sherman, the acting city manager at the time, said the city sent Mehelich notices asking him to come care for the vessel. There was no response, she said.

"For a number of months if not a year, the harbormaster had been watching the vessel, and basically, if the bilges failed we would pump it, and that's when we were trying to reach the owner," she said.

Sound Developer sank in spring 2009, she said. The boat became submerged near the entrance of the harbor, and the city declared the area a hazard to navigation.

A portion of the boat was visible at low tide, and several masts stretched above the surface of the water at hide tide, said Sherman.

Mehelich had told authorities, according to the complaint, that the boat's tanks were emptied. However, its two engines and two generators allegedly contained an unknown amount of oil.

Mehelich retained Alaska Marine Response to address an oil sheen caused by the sinking. The cleanup company's initial efforts to eliminate the sheen failed, and it became apparent the vessel contained more oil than originally reported, according to the complaint.

Through its attorneys, the city discovered Mehelich was in Nome, on the south coast of the Seward Peninsula, dredging gold, Sherman said. According to Mehelich's Internet Movie Database profile, he is the owner of the dredge Goldfish and appeared in two 2013 episodes of "Bering Sea Gold."

Despite repeated requests from the Coast Guard, the complaint says, Mehelich continually refused to address the sheen.

Global Diving and Salvage was hired to remove oil drums and trash and prepare the boat for full removal from the water. A construction company initially tried to pull the Sound Developer from the sea floor using a crane, but damage threatened to cause further oil discharge, according to the complaint. The vessel was lowered back into the water.

Sherman said the vessel was eventually raised, towed out of the harbor and dismantled. On Aug. 15, 2013, a bill totaling $1,657,085 was issued to Mehelich, according to the complaint. He was also fined $500 for a Clean Water Act violation.

The former acting city manager, who serves as the city's museum director, said she is happy the government is taking action. She said the city has changed its practices for unattended boats.

"We're trying to be more proactive," she said. "Vessels have been pulled out of the harbor and owners have been billed for the cost of removal. That's a lot better than having them sink in the harbor."

A summons has been issued to Mehelich, according to federal court records.

Correction: An earlier version of this story misspelled Cathy Sherman's name.