Prosecutors charge owner of sunken ship in Hylebos Waterway

Staff writerJanuary 15, 2014 

Prosecutors today filed criminal charges against the owner of a derelict freighter that sank last year in the Hylebos Waterway, which Attorney General Bob Ferguson said is the first such case in the state’s recent history.

Officials also announced that attempts to rid the Tacoma waterway of the 167-foot Helena Star will be on hold until mid-July.

Charging papers contend Stephen Mason, owner of Mason Marine Services, signed an agreement in February 2011 to salvage Helena Star and another vessel. The U.S. Coast Guard warned him in March 2012 that the freighter posed a danger because it was leaking oil into the waterway but Mason allegedly did nothing.

The Coast Guard said it hired a contractor to remove some of the oil and contain the spill.

Helena Star sank Jan. 25, 2013, dumping 640 gallons of diesel fuel and lube oil into the water. Mason or someone on his behalf removed unknown “items of value” from the vessel before it went under, which might have contributed to the ship sinking, prosecutors said.

“We want to send a clear message that if you harm the environment in Washington State, we will hold you responsible,” Ferguson said Wednesday at a news conference with Public Lands Commissioner Peter Goldmark.

Mason is charged with causing a vessel to become abandoned or derelict and discharging polluting matters into state waters. He faces up to a year in jail and up to $10,000 in fines if convicted as charged.

Mason could not be reached for comment Wednesday. A number for Mason’s company was disconnected.

As of last month, state agencies estimated the cleanup costs were about $500,000. It’s unknown what the total bill will be to raise Helena Star, tow it to Seattle, dismantle and recycle the ship and remove any possible threat from lingering pollutants.

Federal oil-spill money and special funding approved by the Legislature after the spill is paying for the operation.

The state Department of Natural Resources will now assume responsibility of the boat under its Derelict Vessel Removal Program and begin looking for proposals to remove Helena Star.

The decision to put off the removal of the vessel until July was both to give the agency enough time to find a contractor and apply for permits, and because work done in the water right now could hurt migrating salmon.

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