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Thursday, September 6, 2012 - 11:00am

Volunteers Remove Sunken Boats

You've heard of people who walk away from their mortgages when times get tough? Well, on the Georgia coast, the sour economy has a maritime component. Savannah Riverkeeper Tonia Bonitatibus is coralling volunteers to pick up when boaters drop anchor and leave.

"Well when you can't afford to make a living how are you going to upkeep your boat?" Bonitatibus says. "So we have a number of old shrimp vessels where somebody just could not afford to upkeep their boat."

The rising cost of fuel and maintenance and a glut of imported shrimp is making it hard to making a living on the water. Coastal Resources Division Compliance and Enforcement Manager Buck Bennett says, nowhere on Georgia's coast is immune from boats sunk, sometimes intentionally, by people who can't afford to maintain them anymore.

"Right now, we are currently tracking 140 vessels that we have identified," Bennett says. "Of course, there's probably more out there that we don't know about that are considered derelict or sunken."

The abandoned boats can be an unexpected obstacle for boaters expecting more pleasant waters. And they also leak fuel and other contaminants that pose a hazard to people and wildlife. The state used to budget a $180,000 a year to remove them. Now, cities, counties and private companies are on their own.

A blowtorch cuts through the rusty hull of the Captain Vann, a 70 foot, 260,000 pound metal shrimp boat that sunk in the Wilmington River in Thunderbolt near Savannah about 2 months ago.

Tow boat captain Dana Rutland salvaged the boat by lifting it with huge float bags, pumping the water out of it and dismantling it for scrap metal.

"Abandoned boats being anchored and abandoned in our waterways is a growing problem and a conern," Rutland says. "There needs to be something done on the state level to deal with this problem."

Rutland says, a private dock owner lost about $20,000, an average cost for boat removal, when the Vann docked and sunk and its owner disappeared. He says, the dock owner had to move the boat or be liable for more damages. Metal boats like the Vann and the scrap they bring are rare. Most derelict boats are wooden, virtually worthless and a drain on whoever's unlucky to be stuck with them.

"The state at one time had monies available to remove vessels like this," Rutland says. "But the only avenue we have to recover expenses is scrap value."

The piece-by-piece dismantling is an effort by individual volunteers, private businesses, the Savannah Riverkeeper and local and state permitting authorities. They'll also take apart the Justin Bradley, a burned-up shrimp boat that sank nearby last year.

But the effort is a drop in the bucket compared to the need. The CRD's Bennett says, without state funds on hand for the near future, this kind of small, local effort could the shape of clean-ups to come if the boats are to go.

"Through local efforts such as this there has been approximately 57 vessels that have been removed, either insurance settlements or boatowners have taken responsiblity or the dockowner has taken responsibility for the sunken vessel and removing them."

That's 57 out of about 200 in 6 years. The local partners hope to move and take apart three-more boats in the coming months.