After Hurricane Florence, derelict boat-owners left their mess for taxpayers to clean up

The US Coast Guard has identified 383 abandoned boats that contain hazardous materials requiring removal. But without specific funding to salvage them, the boats are allowed to sink after the hazardous waste is removed. (Photo: NC General Assembly presentation)

Nautical scofflaws who abandoned their boats before Hurricane Florence might have committed the perfect crime.

Lawmakers on the Joint Oversight Committee on Agriculture, Natural and Economic Resources today were bewildered not only by the audacity of the derelict boat-owners, but also by the absurdity of the process: Once the boats are raised and their hazardous material removed, they are allowed to sink again. And the owners disappear without consequences.

Under the federal government’s Emergency Support Function 10, states receive disaster funding to help them control and remove actual or potential releases of oil and hazardous materials from abandoned watercraft. But EFS 10, as it’s known for short, contains no money to remove the vessels. So contractors lift the boats, remove the toxic material, and then let them sink again.

Only under Emergency Support Function 3 can the boats be hauled away for disposal. And for reasons unknown, North Carolina doesn’t participate in the ESF 3, said Capt. Christian Gillikin of the Atlantic Coast Marine Group, a private company that provides towing and salvage assistance.

“We should ask for EFS 3,” said Rep. Pat McElraft, a Carteret County Republican. “To leave vessels in water is crazy. We have enough pollution in the water to begin with.”

If the state did enroll in EFS 3, then federal funding could help pay salvage companies to dispose of the boats without re-submerging them.

Floodwaters from Hurricane Florence escorted this abandoned boat to a stranger’s garage.

The expense to raise a boat, remove its hazardous materials, allow it to sink, then return later to remove it, is roughly $395 per foot. For a 32-foot boat, the entire process would cost $12,640. But if the boat could be disposed of immediately after the hazards were removed, it would cost about half that amount, Gillikin said.

In a state-wide survey, the US Coast Guard identified 383 derelict vessels containing potentially hazardous materials, such as fuel, oil, LP gas, solvents, acid and lead batteries and flammable signaling flares. Of those, 265 were located after Hurricane Florence.

The long-term environmental damage of these abandoned vessels can be significant. Routine garbage — beer cans, potato chip bags, plastic silverware – is not removed because it’s not deemed hazardous. So that detritus enters the water, breaks down into microscopic pieces, which aquatic life can ingest. Or in the case of plastic bags, turtles and marine mammals can become entangled in them and suffocate.

Fiberglass sailboats “delaminate,” shedding their skin and polluting the water in the process.

“The trash breaks up into little pieces,” Gillikin said. “It’s harder to deal with and costs more money to salvage.”

Abandoned watercraft lurking just under the surface also present hazards to boats — whose owners care about them – as they navigate through sounds and channels.

“Is there a way to identify the boat owners?” McElraft said.

An ID number, similar to those found on vehicles, can trace a boat to its ne’er-do-well owner. But motivated derelict boat owners often post bogus registration numbers, Gillikin said.

Absent state and federal regulations, local jurisdictions would have to pass ordinances to penalize the owners. Town of Beaufort has an ordinance requiring boat owners to remove their vessels and buoys from Taylor Creek. However some of those owners merely relocate their boats to other waterways within Carteret County. “It then becomes a problem for the county,” Gillikin said.

And even if the owners are found, local law enforcement would have to go through the court system to recoup the fees.

The purpose of the oversight committee meeting was to listen to presentations, not to vote. However, it could appropriate up to $50,000 to assess and develop a scope of work for removal and disposal of the boats. To actually remove and haul all 383 identified boats to salvage would cost roughly $4 million.

Lawmakers will likely introduce legislation to require all state-registered vessels to carry minimum liability insurance to cover salvage and recovery costs.

Rep. Jimmy Dixon, a Duplin County Republican, said, “We need to put the responsibility on the owner of the boat.”


  1. Suzanne Uzzell

    November 13, 2018 at 6:09 pm

    Amen and thanks to the Coast guard and Tow BoatUS. Now its left to our NC law makers in Raleigh. Thank you Beaufort area. Let’s get behind this to help keep our waters clean and the responsibility on the Boat owners.

  2. Liz

    November 14, 2018 at 8:27 am

    The committee was not informed why the State did not request ESF-3. It is because the State was worried it didn’t have adequate laws to bring the vessels ashore and dispose of them. The State was afraid of lawsuits. Also, the State did not have and wouldn’t consider immediately establishing “pre-designated staging areas” for the vessels to come ashore, a requirement of ESF-3. The State should consider a vessel law similar to Florida’s – it establishes a comprehensive State abandoned and derelict vessel program that protects against vessels becoming abandoned and also gives the State the authority to dispose of them and/or hold the owner accountable. If a law like this was passed, ESF-3 could easily be implemented alongside ESF-10 after the next storm. Lastly, the State has a littering law that can apply to abandoned vessels, but it is seldom enforced. A requirement for a liability policy for NC-registered boats isn’t the only answer. Only a few states require this and NC should look into why more don’t (there could be an inherent problem with the requirement).

  3. CrystalCoastSailer

    November 15, 2018 at 8:47 am

    I guess everyone assumes there’s enough room, manpower, and time before a hurricane that boatyards with travel lifts can haul and block every boat floating in the water too big to be trailered with no problem, and every single boat owner has a few grand and a couple free days to make that happen….
    Municipal govts, NC Wildlife or USCG could easily enforce regulation and management of derelict and abandoned vessels in a proactive manner. Its so much less costly to dispose of them before they sink. At the least, have a standard procedure for removing stationary vessels that have been out of registration for a period of time.

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