Earlier this month, Sgt. Chad Womack of the Charleston Police Department's Harbor Patrol led a group out on the water to see the raising of a 37-foot vessel that sank in the Ashley River, just a few dozen yards from California Dreaming.
According to Womack, the boat appeared about nine months ago and simply never left. All efforts were made to track down the owner, but the sergeant said it was a clear case of intentional neglect — an all too common problem in the area.
For a number of owners, the cost and upkeep of a boat proves too much. And when these boats depreciate in value, they become valueless. Faced with the expense of disposal, owners find it easier to abandon ship. In these cases, Womack is reminded of the old expression: "The two best days in a boater's life are when he buys a boat and when he gets rid of it."
"The biggest problem we see around here right now is recreational boats. But often by the time we're informed or we're able to field verify an abandoned vessel, all of the identifying information has been stripped off it," says Dan Burger, director of the Coastal Services Division of Ocean and Coastal Resource Management for DHEC. "So it becomes very difficult to track down the responsible party. At that time, it's really a judgment call whether we spend time and resources tracking that individual to the ends of the earth or slate it for removal when funding becomes available."
According to Burger, the cost to remove a small, floating vessel ranges from $6,000 to $10,000 for full disposal, but the price increases exponentially once a ship sinks. This means waiting for federal funding to become available may not be the most cost-effective method of keeping the waters clean.
A recent multi-agency effort removed almost a dozen abandoned boats from the Ashley River and Charleston Harbor, but without regular funding, officials find themselves treading water.
According to the state's Department of Health and Environmental Control, there are between 90 and 110 derelict and abandoned vessels along the South Carolina coast at any given time. These ships pose a threat to not only those trying to navigate local waters, but also the area's delicate marsh habitat. As boats continue to break down, they may release fuel and other pollutants and scatter debris.
At the end of August, federal, state, and local groups began the latest effort to reduce the number of vessels in Charleston's waters. The $134,000 project was made possible through a grant from DHEC, which included $75,000 in federal funds from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and $30,000 in contributions from the City of Charleston and Charleston City Marina.
South Carolina currently relies on inconsistent federal funding in the form of grants to help subsidize removal projects. While the state is able to coordinate efforts with local municipalities to share some of the financial burden, federal money is still needed before moving forward.
The most recent removal effort was the first for Charleston Harbor since 2010, which means that for the past five years, local authorities have been left with few other options than to watch as abandoned boats accumulate in the Ashley River. Without regular funding to manage the problem, police are forced to wait as the tide takes them under.
"We don't want to create an incentive for poor behavior, but obviously when public health and safety and environmental concerns are as clear and present as these vessels illustrate, we need the ability to act and act quickly," Burger says. "So until then, we'll continue to use whatever state and local funding we can and pursue federal funding opportunities. But that's not an ideal solution."
The struggle to fund abandoned vessel removal projects isn't just a problem for South Carolina.
In 2009, NOAA invited representatives from each coastal state to participate in a workshop on state-level responses to derelict vessels. The forum was held in response to a perceived increase in abandoned boats attributed to the economic downturn the country was experiencing at the time. People were losing their homes; they surely couldn't maintain a boat. When asked about the largest issues faced in terms of abandoned and derelict vessels, 70 percent of state representatives responded "identifying funding sources."
Although money is never easy to come by, legislators in several other states have taken steps to set aside the cash necessary to manage abandoned vessels.
In 2008, Florida lawmakers allocated $1.55 million for removal activities. Two years later, the state's Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission launched an at-risk vessel program to identify boats showing clear signs of neglect and notify owners before things fall into disrepair. Investigating officers simply issue a citation detailing the improvements and repairs to be made by the owner and map the vessel's location.
Washington State lawmakers instituted an annual registration fee for recreational boaters in 2002 to cover the cost of disposing of abandoned ships and passed a bill last year creating an additional tax for owners based on ship size. The state's annual derelict vessel removal fee is equal to $1 per foot measured by the length of a boat.
California's Abandoned Watercraft Abatement Fund provides up to $1 million per year for removal and disposal costs throughout the state. The fund is supported by boater registration fees, gas taxes, and interest payments on loans. Agencies are required to match 10 percent of the funds received and coordinate all aspects of the removal.
All in all, nearly 10 coastal states have established dedicated funding sources for the removal of abandoned vessels.
As for South Carolina, DHEC's Coastal Services Division director is unaware of any immediate efforts by the General Assembly to establish a dedicated fund for removal efforts.
"Several years ago we received a supplemental appropriation of $100,000 that was pretty quickly exhausted. And that was a one-time supplemental budget allocation," Burger says. "Abandoned vessels are a chronic problem. So we really do need to look for a more regular or reoccurring funding source."
In the meantime, he says DHEC will explore other opportunities for available funding and work with other agencies to better answer questions surrounding the problem.
"We need to look at some of the policy considerations," Burger says. "What are the available options for people to responsibly dispose of their vessel? Do we have the infrastructure in place to support the booming recreational boating culture that's occurring on the coast?"