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Crews At Work On Slow, Expensive Disposal Of Notorious Derelict Vessel Helena Star

A poster child for Washington state’s problem with abandoned boats is at a shipyard in Seattle. The notorious Helena Star is being scrapped by Stabbert Maritime in Ballard.

The decrepit vessel once made headlines as a drug-smuggling ship; in 1978, the U.S. Coast Guard seized the ship off the coast of Washington with $75 million worth of marijuana on board. Now it’s an object lesson on how and why the process of cleanup and recovery of abandoned boats is so complex and expensive.

The 167-foot ship was patched up and towed to Seattle last month from Tacoma, where it sank near the south end of the Hylebos Waterway a year ago. It was tied to another derelict vessel, the Golden West and had sat there submerged for more than a year.

“It’s not every day you see barnacles on the top side of a boat,” said Rory Mullen, the shipyard superintendent now overseeing the deconstruction. 

Credit Bellamy Pailthorp / KPLU

Mullen says crews don't think there’s any oil left inside the massive rusty hull that’s peeking out from behind a huge tarp, but there are many toxins that have to be removed.

“The three big ones are asbestos, PCBs and lead paint,” Mullen said.

To deal with the lead paint, crews have just started something called needle gunning, which involves stripping off narrow swaths along the lines where they plan to cut through the steel. The chipped-off debris is contained in plastic. 

It’s a lengthy process made necessary by decades of neglect, but Mullen says this will keep the poisonous lead out of the air. After it’s cut into pieces, the remains will be barged to a recycling facility.

“It’s certainly not the prettiest boat in the world, but you know, scrap metal is scrap metal,”he said.

The total bill for cleanup and recovery of the Helena Star and the Golden West is expected to exceed $2 million. And right now, it doesn’t look like the state will be able to recover much of that cost from the last owner, who is being criminally charged for abandoning the vessels and has declared bankruptcy.

Last session, the state Legislature tightened the derelict vessel law to prevent future sales to owners who can’t afford safe upkeep. 

Attorney General Bob Fergusen is pushing to tighten state law even more and make abandonment of derelict vessels a felony. This would make it possible to levy steeper fines and longer jail times upon prosecution. 

"We need to serve as a deterrent to individuals who want to buy these vessels and think they can fix them up, but they just don't have resources to do it," Ferguson said. "The inevitable will happen. The boats eventually sink, they cause environmental damage when fuel is released into our waterways, they also cause a hazard for other boaters, when they are sitting in the water. And there's the cost to taxpayers."

Bellamy Pailthorp covers the environment for KNKX with an emphasis on climate justice, human health and food sovereignty. She enjoys reporting about how we will power our future while maintaining healthy cultures and livable cities. Story tips can be sent to