BETHEL -- Rusting relics of industry gone by cut into the banks of a well-traveled slough off the Kuskokwim River, oozing fuel and gradually disintegrating -- a decaying steamboat here, abandoned barges there, even a dismantled tug.
The mess in Steamboat Slough, just a quick boat ride from the Southwest Alaska hub of Bethel, is both menacing and ghostly.
It's an enormous problem, but according to those involved, it remains frustratingly hard to fix. Weak state laws, difficulties with vessel owners, limited jurisdictions and pinched public budgets hamper the effort.
The cost of removing the hundreds of abandoned and derelict vessels littering shorelands around the state is easily in the tens of millions of dollars, say members of a task force trying to turn around the situation.
"Whether that is barges in the Bethel area in Steamboat Slough or fishing vessels in Port Lions on Kodiak Island, or Port Graham in Southeast, if you have this large vessel that may not be seaworthy or may not be economically viable anymore, what do you do with it?" said Steve Russell, interagency coordinator for the state Department of Environmental Conservation and part of the task force. "The answer in the past was you go to X area and just leave it."
In Southeast Alaska, state officials are concerned about renegade float-houses that, far from being abandoned, are people's homes. Some are elaborate and massive structures with satellite dishes and gardens. Yet most float-house residents have failed to secure or even seek necessary permits to park on state shorelands and some are in disrepair and in danger of sinking, according to the state Department of Natural Resources.
Near Bethel, fish camps with drying racks for strips of salmon dot the uplands on both sides of Steamboat Slough, some just a stone's throw from rotting vessels and debris. One barge that sank in the channel two years ago poses year-round danger and is blamed for a December 2013 four-wheeler crash that cost a man almost all his fingers from frostbite.
"A long time trying to get somebody to do something with those barges," said Barbara Anvil, whose Steamboat Slough fish camp is one of the bigger ones near the old vessel graveyard. "They come and they talk to us about it and then that's about it."
A national situation
While some coastal states, including Washington, have comprehensive programs and laws to target derelict vessels, Alaska -- with far more coastline than any other state -- just now is trying to find the best approach.
Officials struggle even to learn who is responsible for a sunken heap. Alaska has no vessel title system to track ownership, unlike with cars, though vessels are supposed to be registered. Other than for vessels posing the biggest risk, such as oil tankers, the state doesn't require vessels to have pollution insurance, hull insurance, or liability insurance. The state requires no protections for buyers, such as inspections for seaworthiness.
Anyone can sell a timeworn heap with a contract written on a napkin in a bar for $1, and as long as they keep the napkin as proof of sale, they have shed themselves of responsibility if it sinks the next day, Russell said.
"You don't have to be licensed. You don't have to have insurance. You don't have to have anything except certain safety gear, life jackets and survival suits," he said.
The situation is worsening as the vessel fleet here ages, said Wyn Menefee, operations chief for the state Division of Mining, Land and Water.
The lack of strong legislation "makes it pretty easy for people to dispose of vessels in state waters and state lands," Menefee said. "That's not good for the state of Alaska. That's not good for the people."
The issue extends beyond Alaska. A 1992 report by the Government Accounting Office -- the watchdog arm of Congress now known as the Government Accountability Office -- identified derelict and abandoned vessels as "a significant threat to the environment and coastal economies" and recommended solutions, according to a letter sent three weeks ago by 22 members of Congress, including Alaska's three-member delegation, to the GAO.
"Yet some twenty years later, derelict vessels continue to impact our economies, and our environment," the letter said.
"We got the study, and that was a long time ago," said Sen. Lisa Murkowski. "You raise attention to the matter, but what has been done with it?"
Little, if anything, so far. The congressional members in their letter asked the GAO for a new study to document the scale of the problem, the costs and the response.
How many vessels?
In Alaska, different agencies have created their own spreadsheets and mini-databases of derelicts, all with different counts and all incomplete.
The Department of Natural Resources has identified 160 derelicts awaiting removal. And the backlog keeps growing, Menefee said.
"That's just ones we have in our internal tracking and it's not a very good tracking system," he said.
DNR is working to create a centralized system.
"We're trying to create a database that's accessible to the Coast Guard, DEC, Corps of Engineers, harbormasters, so we are all working on the same sheet of music," Menefee said.
Two old wooden fishing boats in disrepair that sank near Homer on Christmas 2012 were the catalyst for action, though harbormasters and port administrators had been working on the issue for a few years, said Rachel Lord, clean water program director for the environmental group Cook Inletkeeper.
The Leading Lady and the Kupreanof went down after a heavy snowfall in a spot near Kachemak Bay's prized oyster farms, Lord said. Leaking fuel and lube oils created a sheen, the DEC said in a report at the time.
The U.S. Coast Guard contracted for the old boats to be raised and the fuel to be removed. But once the pollution threat was over, the Coast Guard was done.
Ownership of the fishing boats turned out to be tangled and the process for dealing with them moved in fits and starts.
A year and a half after the sinking, the state paid for one vessel to be demolished. The other was repossessed by the previous owner, who repaid DNR some of its costs, according to a task force case study report. But the Coast Guard never was reimbursed for a bill that Russell said was in the range of $350,000.
The Legislature in 2013 took up the matter of derelicts for the first time in decades, pushed by state Rep. Paul Seaton, a Republican from Homer with a signature fisherman's cap. The bill passed that year was a first step, Lord said. It extended authority to deal with abandoned and derelict vessels beyond the Department of Transportation to other state agencies as well as municipalities.
The task force, which includes representatives of state and federal agencies, along with the nonprofit environmental group Cook Inletkeeper, started work last year. At a June meeting, Bethel's tribe caught the group's attention with a compelling video of Steamboat Slough to support its pitch for action, Lord said. A comprehensive fix will take time, task force members said.
The group is working on a package of recommendations, but it probably won't be ready until fall 2016, in time for the 2017 legislative session, Menefee said.
As it is, a host of state and federal agencies deal with derelict vessels. Roles are fragmented and none have been able to rid Steamboat Slough of its mess or even the single sunken barge in the navigation channel.
The Coast Guard may take charge to remove fuel or other pollution sources and may mark hazards or issue notices to warn mariners. But it generally doesn't remove vessels, said Cmdr. Hector Cintron, chief of prevention for the Coast Guard area that includes Western Alaska.
The Army Corps of Engineers has some authority to remove derelicts, but it puts priority on cases in which a vessel is blocking navigation in a channel that the Corps dredges, said Julie Anderson, chief of operations for the Corps Alaska district.
And even at that, "if you can maneuver around the obstruction, the Corps doesn't consider it blocking navigation, so we wouldn't be authorized to spend funds on something like that," she said.
DEC can order companies to clean up pollution, and did so in 2013 in the case of a tugboat in Steamboat Slough. The owner, Faulkner Walsh Constructors, removed the deck house, machinery and fuel lines. But it left the hull on the shore, Russell said.
The state agency with direct authority for managing shorelines is DNR, which can seize a vessel left there without permission. But it can't directly fine an owner or bring criminal charges for failing to move a vessel off tidal lands, Menefee said. However, the state can prosecute under criminal or civil trespass laws, he said.
DNR also has no budget for disposing of derelicts, he said. Most are too far gone to salvage for scrap metal or parts. Small coastal communities don't have landfill space for them.
"Do we have the ability to deal with them, as in seize them? Yes," Menefee said. "Do we have the ability to actually do something with them? That's a bigger question. That's the more challenging one."
At a community meeting last year, Bethel residents told authorities they were fed up. Bethel's tribe, Orutsararmiut Native Council, has made cleaning up Steamboat Slough and other nearby vessel graveyards a priority and is working with government agencies and fish camp residents. Bethel Native Corp. has been pushing for action too. It owns land up the slough from the wreckage where dozens of people have fish camps.
"Imagine how much junk is in the bottom of the slough where all these barges are. It's just horrible to think about," said Rose Kalistook, who runs the tribe's environmental program.
The sunken barge is changing the flow of water, said Curtis Mann, a tribal environmental worker.
Last August, DNR posted trespass notices on 33 abandoned and derelict vessels in the Bethel area, including 21 in Steamboat Slough. It wasn't able to reach two more. The notices gave owners 90 days to either move the vessels or seek permission to legally dock there, said Jusdi McDonald, a natural resource manager at DNR.
But most of the hulks are still there, Menefee said.
Two parties hit with trespass notices have come forward to seek permission, as did another shipping company that may want to park vessels on state shoreland in the future, according to DNR.
The company that DNR says is responsible for more Bethel-area abandoned or derelict vessels than anyone, Faulkner Walsh Constructors, applied for a land-use permit in late June to park seven barges in Steamboat Slough -- just days after Alaska Dispatch News asked about the issue, Menefee said.
Harry Faulkner Jr., an owner of the company, said in an interview before applying for that permit that his vessels were neither derelict nor abandoned. He said he had permission from a private land owner to park four barges, the dismantled tug hull, and two Flexifloats (a brand of modular barge), and asserted that he didn't need state permission. One large gravel barge, the Delta Viking, "is parked until the economy comes back," he said. Another was used to harvest fish when a commercial salmon processor operated in Bethel.
DNR said the vessels are on state-owned shorelands.
Asked what prompted him to apply for permits, Faulkner said in a follow-up email that the company meant to do so earlier but someone in Anchorage failed to send in the paperwork.
DNR can give permission for a vessel to use state shorelands for up to five years. It evaluates each application in terms of public interest and also will give the Bethel community, including fish camp owners, an opportunity to comment, Menefee said. The process can take months. The state can require a bond and reclamation plans.
"It's not a slam dunk that he applied; he's good," Menefee said.
As to the barge, known as Schenk's Ark, sunk in the channel since the spring of 2013, Faulkner said that's not his. He said he only leased it in 2012 and moored it when he was done.
"It didn't sink until the following spring," when the moorings came loose, he said.
Faulkner said he tried to refloat the barge, but he maintains that the owner, David Ausdahl, was responsible, not him. Efforts to reach Ausdahl were unsuccessful.
"Out of the goodness of my company's heart, we went up there for two weeks and tried to raise this barge. And we were not capable of lifting that barge," Faulkner said.
DNR says that it holds both the owner and the operator responsible. "The disagreement between the two regarding liability has been a main reason for non-response," the task force case study report said.
Meanwhile, DNR still is considering whether to approve permits for the other two applications, from Alaska Logistics and Crowley -- which didn't receive a trespass notice but is interested in parking vessels on state shorelands near Bethel in the future, McDonald said.
Earlier this year, the steel-hulled fishing vessel Savannah Ray grounded off Kodiak Island, carrying 25,000 pounds of cod and 2,300 gallons of diesel. The fuel and other pollutants were removed.
"Twenty-five, 30 years ago, all parties would have just left the vessel there," DEC's Russell said. But with the push to address derelicts, that wreck is being removed from its resting spot on tiny Long Island, he said. "It took constant pressure by the agencies to ensure that that vessel was removed."
The owner, Russell said, had insurance.
A small sailboat found sunk on state tidelands near Juneau in 2010 was seen in the same spot in an inspection four years later, covered in marine growth, the case study report said. The owner was living in a homeless shelter and had no money.
"When reminded of his pledge to remove vessel in pieces he said he had become depressed and couldn't bring himself to return to the site," the report said.
A DNR manager said the agency didn't have the $6,800 it would cost to remove the St. Harold and dump it at the landfill, according to the case study.