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Originally published February 4, 2013 at 4:44 PM | Page modified February 4, 2013 at 4:44 PM

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Editorial: State needs to get tougher on derelict vessels

Derelict ships appeal to the dreams and schemes of would-be seamen, but the state shouldn’t have to pick up the tab when things go awry.

Seattle Times Editorial

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THE budget-busting junkers that have befouled Washington’s waterways have colorful names — the Deep Sea, the Davy Crockett, the Helena Star, the Cactus.

But this rogue’s gallery has collectively cost taxpayers tens of millions of dollars because their owners let them rot away until they threatened the environment and economy.

The state’s derelict-vessel program, in the state Department of Natural Resources, has been too limited by resources and law to aggressively prevent such disasters as the Deep Sea. The state paid $1.3 million to dismantle the vessel after it sank amid the famed mussel beds of Penn Cove in May, and millions more to clean up an oil spill.

Lawmakers are rightly considering a more proactive approach. HB 1245 would require pre-sale, buyer-beware inspections of dilapidated vessels, and would empower marina owners to dispose of abandoned vessels. To fund disposal, a $1 surcharge on recreational boat licensing, set to expire this year, would become permanent.

These are good steps, but lawmakers should also consider stricter accountability for negligent owners. Automobile drivers must carry liability insurance; why shouldn’t owners of near-decrepit ships? Why shouldn’t potential buyers of these vessels have to prove they have resources to dismantle and dispose of their property?

The state doesn’t have the resources to clean up their messes. The derelict vessel removal budget is $800,000 a year. Several one-time boosts, including $3 million in federal stimulus funding, allowed for dismantling of two big derelict vessels — the 180-foot Cactus and 190-foot New Star — at a cost of $1.5 million.

The recession’s lingering effects certainly have added to the state-maintained list of derelict vessels, which now stands at more than 230. The downtrodden vessels appeal to the dreams and schemes of would-be seamen, who don’t consider the potential costs.

But the public should not be stuck with the bill when they predictably go awry.

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