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Key approval granted for removal of grounded American Challenger off Marin coast

The U.S. Coast Guard’s top commander has authorized use of federal dollars from the Oil Spill Liability Trust Fund to dismantle a 90-foot, decommissioned fishing vessel grounded on the rocks off the Marin Coast since last March.

But the long-awaited consent means little until rough winter ocean conditions subside long enough to make salvage operations safe, officials said.

The American Challenger already is in about as precarious a setting as possible ― listing sharply in a rugged offshore area below steep bluffs unsafe for divers and most standard salvage approaches.

“It’s a very active surf area even when the weather’s good,” said Kyle Watson, Salvage Master with Global Diving and Salvage Inc., which has been contracted to remove the vessel.

Ben Wathen, a spokesman for the Coast Guard’s San Francisco Sector, noted that recent winter storms were “a good thing for the area. Just a lot more rain.”

“But as far as any operations, especially within the location of this vessel, any time you put people down there, there’s always a risk. And if the weather’s not perfect around those rocks, the Coast Guard and the Unified Command just doesn’t want to put people down there with the recent weather,” he said, referring to the team of state and federal agencies involved in the federal’s removal. “It seems to be letting up a little, but it’s been really hard to put people down on and around that vessel.”

Agency representatives nonetheless issued assurances that the vessel, stranded in the waters of the Greater Farallones National Marine Sanctuary, would not be abandoned, though it still could be some months before operations begin.

The salvage “is approved, so it’s just a matter of time now,” said Eric Laughlin, a spokesman for the California Fish and Game Department’s Office of Spill Prevention and Response, which is handling communication for Unified Command.

The retired, 1975 vessel was under tow from Port Angeles, Washington, to Mexico, to be scuttled when a steel shackle linking the two vessels failed. The American Challenger was adrift for hours before running aground March 5 on the rocks between the Dillon Beach and the Estero Americano, about 75 to 100 yards off shore.

Neither boat was insured. As of last summer, public agencies had spent more than $2.3 million to inspect and secure the vessel and protect the surrounding environment. Most of the fuel had been drained before its departure from the Puget Sound.

From the beginning, it was clear removal of the vessel would prove difficult. An initial plan to pump it full of buoyant, expanding foam and float it off the rocks was dismissed because of how badly battered and punctured the hull is.

The current plan, developed last summer, includes rigging a block-and-tackle system to pull the vessel closer to shore and then cut it into pieces that can be hauled away by helicopter and barge.

But agency representatives said the plan needs to be reviewed and re-evaluated given movement of the vessel over winter. Watson also said he wants to ensure he has considered every option, given the difficult setting and condition of the wreckage.

“It’s heeled over further now,” he said. “It’s very steeply pitched over. So it’s like trying to stand on a very steeply pitched roof.”

Laughlin said the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency would begin assessing the American Challenger’s current status this week through unmanned drone flights, as part of the evaluation of the plan for dismantling it.

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

Mary Callahan

Environment and Climate Change, The Press Democrat

I am in awe of the breathtaking nature here in Sonoma County and am so grateful to live in this spectacular region we call home. I am amazed, too, by the expertise in our community and by the commitment to protecting the land, its waterways, its wildlife and its residents. My goal is to improve understanding of the issues, to find hope and to help all of us navigate the future of our environment. 

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