Marina owners, the environment pays the price for abandoned boats in Virginia

SMITH MOUNTAIN LAKE, Virginia. – Hundreds of derelict boats across the Commonwealth are straining the pockets of marina owners while putting wildlife at risk.

Life at sea becomes difficult when owners abandon their boats.

When new owners took over a marina, now called Dock at Smith Mountain Lake, they found a boat that had been moored for 15 years.

“It’s a shame because it was a beautiful boat,” said Chris Baker, general manager of the marina.

With years of storms and temperature changes rocking the boat, it resulted in rope damage and rotting wood that weakened the bridge structure.

Baker said it was a bill that marina owners had to pay and fix. He didn’t have the exact amount.

“But if you can’t find the owner of the vessel, the marina basically has to claim ownership of the vessel,” Baker said. “And then we have to pay to have it destroyed and taken away and it can cost up to $10-15,000.”

According to the US Coast Guard and reports from local marinas, there are more than 200 abandoned vessels across the state.

As a member of the Coast Guard, Baker worries about how this problem could threaten the environment.

“An abandoned boat can actually leak dangerous chemicals into the lake. Everything from hydraulic fluid to fuel to battery acid. This therefore has a significant impact on the ecosystem.

Baker said the boat also dates from the 1970s and there was an early scare about potential asbestos and the need to hire a hazmat team.

Katie Register, executive director of Clean Virginia Waterways, says money tends to be the biggest reason homeowners don’t return.

Owners could face a bill of $14,000 to $35,000 to remove their boats.

“You can take it to a landfill or hire someone to do it for you, and then there are various charges that aren’t uniform,” said Jeff Flood, coastal planner with Virginia Coastal Zone Management.

The process of claiming an abandoned boat isn’t that simple either.

Flood said a person must first obtain a title.

“This would involve either contacting the last known owner (if already known) to sign it, or going through an extensive process to attempt to contact the last known owner based on the registration information (send certified letters) and/or location/description (if no identifying information available) by placing an ad in a local newspaper,” Flood said. “This process may be assisted by Virginia Marine Resources Commission Marine Police or officers of the Department of Wildlife Resources If the interested party is able to obtain title to the vessel, they should also file this information with the DWR.

However, Flood said vessel registration is technically not a requirement as long as the vessel is not operating on a public body of water. It’s a loophole, he said, that Longwood University’s Clean Virginia Waterways and Virginia Coastal Zone Management Program are working to fix.

“We want boaters to understand their legal responsibilities to dispose of their other boats and we want to make it easier for them to do so legally,” Register said.

Register and Flood are studying suppression programs and discussing legislative changes that could possibly limit the time for investigation and legal challenges.

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