Deserted boats posing rising environmental hazard

by WHITNEY PIPKIN, Bay Journal News Service

Whether lurking as hazards beneath the water’s surface or becoming eyesores as they drift ashore, abandoned boats are a growing problem in Chesapeake Bay waters – especially in Virginia.

And they’re not as easy to get out of the water as they were to put in.
The U.S. Coast Guard has documented 170 abandoned and derelict vessels in Virginia waters since 2013, and state officials are building a list of even more that need to be removed.

Some boats are set adrift by storms and, in the absence of a fastidious owner, stay that way for months or years. Recreators who bought a boat during the pandemic may be realizing they no longer want to maintain one.

But one of the biggest concerns involves boats built during the affordable fiberglass boat boom that began in the 1960s, which are reaching the end of their lifespans. The number being abandoned appears to be on the rise.

Made with reinforced plastic-and-glass materials, these boats don’t blend into a marshy shoreline as they decompose, like their wooden forebears. Instead, they persist in the environment, shedding microplastic particles and leaching toxic materials over time.

The boats often end up left in a marina or set adrift because the owner feels like there aren’t other options for disposal. Getting rid of a defunct boat can easily cost more than the boat is worth.

Unlike old cars, whose mostly metal frames can be sold or donated for scrap materials, the fiberglass components of a boat “are practically worthless and tend to cost more to remove, prepare for disposal and dispose of than their parts are worth,” states a recent report from the Virginia Coastal Policy Center at William & Mary Law School.

Not to mention, “the longer it’s out there, the more expensive it is to remove,” said Karen Forget, executive director of Lynnhaven River NOW, who has for years received calls from residents concerned about sinking or stranded boats near Virginia Beach. “They want us to come up with some kind of solution for what to do with it.”

Once it’s dead in the water, removing an abandoned boat costs thousands of dollars and up to tens of thousands depending on where the boat is located and how much it has already disintegrated. And getting it back out of the water – whether by towboat, crane or claw – comes with all sorts of red tape.

The Lynnhaven group, along with Virginia’s Coastal Zone Management Program and the Clean Virginia Waterways project at Longwood University, has applied for a grant from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association’s Marine Debris Program to fund more boat removals. The federal program funneled nearly $2 million into 10 marine debris removal programs in states in 2021, helping them tackle a backlog of derelict vessels decomposing in their waters.

The Coastal Zone Management Program, operated under Virginia’s Department of Environmental Quality, has largely completed a report on the status of the state’s abandoned boat problem. First drafted in the fall, the document includes policy suggestions for giving boat owners better options for disposal, funding removals and addressing the underlying issues contributing to an uptick in abandoned vessels.

As of late May, the report was waiting for approval by the Gov. Youngkin’s administration. Meanwhile, the agency has been working on an inventory of abandoned boats to help prioritize removals once funding becomes available.
But Laura McKay, manager of the coastal management program, said the problem continues to grow.

“We have got to turn off that faucet, or we’re just in big trouble,” she said.

Though Virginia law considers it a Class 3 misdemeanor to abandon a vessel in a waterway, the $500 fine is much less than the potential cost of removing it. Without a clear process for safe disposal, many people abandon their boats out of desperation.

In the Chesapeake watershed, only Maryland has a steady source of funding to remove abandoned vessels, according to NOAA’s Marine Debris Program.

Maryland has for years funded its abandoned boat and debris program through a 5-percent excise tax on all boats purchased in the state. The money helps keep channels dredged for boat navigation and provides up to $500,000 per year for removing abandoned vessels, according the Virginia Coastal Policy Center report.

Florida, California and other coastal states have also developed ongoing funding mechanisms to pay for the removal of derelict vessels.

Whitney Pipkin is a Bay Journal staff writer based in Virginia. You can reach her at [email protected]. This article first appeared in the June 2022 issue of the Bay Journal and was distributed by the Bay Journal News Service.