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American Challenger stuck on Marin coast until salvage funds identified

State and federal officials are wrapping up their emergency response to a wrecked fishing vessel on the northern Marin coast and say any effort to remove the boat wreckage is on hold, pending their ability to secure funding.

The $1.5 million spent so far on surveys, oil booms, environmental assessments and shoreline cleanups in the eight days since the decommissioned American Challenger ran aground was financed through the federal Oil Spill Liability Trust Fund and a similar state Oil Spill Response Fund.

But neither source can be used to address salvage of the rusted, derelict vessel listing on the rocks north of Dillon Beach, where it suddenly shifted in the waves Wednesday while marine surveyors were working, suspending further onboard activity, officials said during a public meeting Saturday.

By then, salvage workers had inspected all but four of 17 fuel tanks and confirmed reports that they had been drained prior to the 90-foot vessel’s departure from Puget Sound, from where it was to be towed by the tugboat Hunter to Mexico to be scrapped, officials said.

Though minimal oil sheening had been observed in the vicinity of the wreck in the days after its March 6 grounding, no additional sheening had been seen during the last three days, corroborating evidence that no recoverable fuel was onboard, Coast Guard San Francisco Sector Deputy Commander Howard Wright said.

Without the imminent or ongoing threat of a spill, the Coast Guard and state Office of Spill Prevention and Response, who have been working with Marin County and the Greater Farallones National Marine Sanctuary on the effort, no longer are authorized to draw from the funds, officials said.

“There’s no disagreement that the ship itself is a pollutant,” Wright said. “The next phase is identifying sources of funding.”

Officials expressed hope that public outrage and advocacy, combined with strong interest on the part of various government agencies, would facilitate a solution — not just in identifying funding sources for what will be a multimillion-dollar salvage job, but for ensuring a plan can be developed that is safe for both those participating and for the sensitive environment at hand.

The boat is several hundred feet off shore at the base of a steep cliff, with no access from shore or water. Workers so far have had to be put aboard by helicopter.

Bell also said the listing of the vessel raises fears its hull may have begun to crush. He said even the 2-degree shift on Wednesday filled rooms that had been dry with water and allowed 2-foot-walls of water into the boat.

The situation highlights well-known liability gaps of derelict boats abandoned in California waters that have left many to break apart and litter coastal shores and inland areas.

Tom Cullen, administrator for the state Office of Spill Prevention and Response, was outwardly frustrated by the long-running discussions about the problem and, in particular, by the American Challenger — an uninsured boat from out of state on its way to be scuttled being towed by a tugboat that also was uninsured.

"As a Marin County resident, it kind of just horrifies me to see this on our Marin County coastline,“ he said.

Such wrecks are “not common, but too common,” and the answer has to be new law ensuring owners are financially responsible, he said.

Both the tugboat and the 1975 American Challenger are owned by Ship International Inc., whose principal, Felix Vera, are not able to fund the salvage.

Long a part of the Alaskan fishing fleet, the American Challenger already had overstayed its welcome at several ports in Washington state, which limits moorings to 90 days before a vessel can be declared derelict and impounded, Vera’s lawyer, maritime attorney Shawn Griggs said Friday.

The state of Washington and the Coast Guard sector got involved trying to get the boat moved when Vera contracted COVID-19. He was intubated and in an induced coma, when Griggs, the custodian of his will, got involved in discussions about what to do.

Southern California tugboat Capt. Christian Lint, who had worked for Vera before, was brought up to tow the disabled American Challenger south.

Lint said the tow plan was laid out by the Coast Guard. He saw deficiencies right away that he said he noted to the Port Angeles office. He said they included too narrow tow wire, or line, and a Chinese-made steel shackle connecting the boats that he didn’t trust.

The tow line had to be replaced outside of Crescent City. The shackle failed in Bodega Bay, causing the American Challenger to go adrift and eventually land on the rocks about 300 feet from the tide line near the base of some cliffs north of Dillon Beach.

Christian Lind of Petaluma-based Lind Marine Inc., which is working with Ballard, said one possible removal plan involved patching the hull and pumping it full of impermeable lightweight foam — both to make the vessel more buoyant and prevent water from infiltrating the main body before dragging it from the rocks with tugboats.

But Ballard’s comments Saturday suggested there were substantial unknowns to be resolved before any extraction method could be finalized.

Lind said the location is the worst thing about it.

“We wish it was in the middle of the ocean, or on the bottom. That would be better,” he said. “But where it is is terrible. It just adds a lot of difficulty being on the rocks. You can’t access it from shore. You can’t access it from water. So we can really only access it safely from the air, by helicopter — super expensive and dangerous and not an efficient way to work.”

State Fish and Wildlife Environmental Scientists Mia Roberts said experts balancing protection of sensitive wildlife and habitats against residual oil contamination also had determined that the best course from here on was to allow what remained to biodegrade, rather than risk harm to natural resources.

About 7,400 feet of boom deployed, primarily in Tomales Bay, also will be removed, beginning Monday.

Richard James, an Inverness resident who spends much of his time cleaning up shoreline trash, including numerous boat wrecks over the years, asked agency officials for guidance in advocating for government action by elected representatives on the problem of derelict vessels.

“This is entirely unacceptable,” he said. “The public is subsidizing all these activities. We lose. Nature loses. The environment loses, because some people are greedy and want to keep money in their pockets.”

You can reach Staff Writer Mary Callahan at 707-521-5249 or mary.callahan@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @MaryCallahanB.

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