The end is in sight for the American Challenger, the derelict fishing vessel that broke free of its towline and grounded on rocks north of Dillon Beach nearly one year ago.
Last week, the United States Coast Guard Commandant approved a plan for the boat’s removal and destruction, after a lengthy review found the vessel threatened to pollute waters in the Greater Farallones National Marine Sanctuary. The finding opened the door to a federal oil spill trust fund, which the Coast Guard is permitted to access under the 1990 Oil Pollution Act.
The Environmental Protection Agency will cover salvage and disposal costs, estimated at $1 million, and the Coast Guard will cover the expense of removal. Access to those funds required a review process that considered impacts to natural, cultural and historic resources, costs, and legal implications.
“Dismantling a vessel does not fall within the [regional Coast Guard’s] authority,” said Eric Laughlin, a spokesman for the California Fish and Wildlife Department’s Office of Spill Prevention and Response. Doing so is not a common occurrence, he said, so the evaluation assisted the agency’s top-ranking official in making the decision.
The 90-foot American Challenger was on its way from Puget Sound to a salvage yard in Mexico when its towline broke and it ran aground on March 5, 2021. The shipowner did not have the financial means or insurance to recover the boat, and responsibility for the cleanup and removal was initially unclear.
The Unified Command—a coalition of agencies including the Marin County Sheriff’s Office, the Coast Guard, the E.P.A., the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the California Department of Fish and Wildlife’s Office of Spill Prevention and Response—sought funding for the vessel’s removal.
Last spring, salvage crews inspected the boat and managed to contain and remove seven cubic yards of petroleum-contaminated debris. The Coast Guard deployed several thousand feet of boom over Tomales Bay after oil sheen was observed, but there were no reports of oiled or injured wildlife.
An initial plan to refloat and relocate the Challenger was delayed and then finally abandoned due to inclement weather, dangerous conditions and technical limitations aboard the ship. In recent months, the boat has listed more sharply, and officials determined it unsafe for crews to board.
Under a more recent plan, crews would rig a specialized block-and-tackle pulley system to bring the vessel closer to shore, where personnel dropping by helicopter could cut the boat into pieces that would be transported to Mare Island. Yet Mr. Laughlin said that plan was developed months ago, so current conditions of the vessel, the sea and the weather will need to be factored in.
The 1990 Oil Pollution Act, enacted in response to the Exxon Valdez oil spill in 1989, gives the Coast Guard authority under extreme circumstances to destroy or remove a vessel if an oil pollution threat exists. The act allows the agency access to a large and restricted fund, said Steve Kinsey, a former Marin County supervisor who is representing the landowner where the Challenger ran aground.
“The key determinant in whether the funding could be released was a demonstration of an ongoing threat of pollution,” he said.
In this case, the boat’s fuel tanks had been emptied prior to its journey to Mexico, but there were enough fluids onboard to pose a risk to the marine sanctuary. The boat appears to be stable now, Mr. Kinsey said, but “given the uncertainties of the weather, a spring-time cleanup is what’s anticipated now.”
The Challenger removal is the result of a concerted effort on the part of many agencies, and its location in a marine sanctuary gave it momentum that other shipwrecks around California haven’t had, Mr. Kinsey said: “There are many that have never been removed.”
Local legislators like Rep. Jared Huffman have encouraged the Coast Guard to loosen its restrictions on the oil spill trust fund so that future wrecks can be addressed more swiftly.