Sunken freighter raised from Hylebos Waterway

Four months and $600,000 later, the derelict freighter Helena Star has been refloated and is expected to leave for Seattle today after sinking 18 months ago in Tacoma’s Hylebos Waterway.

The 167-foot ship sank on Jan. 25, 2013, and was slowly spilling 640 gallons of oil and diesel. Crews tried to raise the freighter in December, but the single crane wasn’t enough to lift the ship without causing further damage.

On Tuesday, two floating cranes that can raise the combined weight of 1,100 tons lifted the vessel so it could be drained of water, said Melissa Ferris, program manager for the Derelict Vessel Removal Program with the state Department of Natural Resources.

“It’s very exciting,” she said. “Especially exciting for the Department of Ecology because they have been out here for an ongoing basis for a year.”

If the plan goes according to schedule, a tugboat will move the freighter Thursday morning to the Stabbert Yacht and Ship facility in Seattle, said Lt Cmdr. Lance Lindgren of the U.S. Coast Guard.

The trip is expected to take about four hours.

The Ecology Department, the state Department of Natural Resources, the Coast Guard and Global Diving and Salvage of Seattle worked Wednesday to make sure the Star was stable enough to travel through the waterways.

Placing the Helena Star on a barge and transporting had been discussed, but the cranes couldn’t support the the ship’s 600 tons once it was out of the water and hanging in the air.

Using a tugboat was deemed the best option, Ferris said

The Coast Guard approved the tow plan, which an insurance agent for Global Diving and Salvage must sign off on before the ship can be moved.

Lindgren said he did not foresee any problems with tugging the freighter to Seattle. Divers and crew members will travel with the vessel to ensure there aren’t any problems en route.

The five-day prep work leading up to salvaging the ship involved clearing excess debris and patching three-to-four-inch-wide holes in the vessel’s underbelly.

Orange oil spill booms were placed around the parameter of the Star to keep any contamination out of the waterway as it was being lifted.

The Coast Guard was on hand in case there was a significant oil and diesel leak, but there was only a minimal oil sheen, which wasn’t enough to clean up, Lindgren said.

“It went flawlessly,” he said. “It went exactly according to plan.”

The entire project – including dismantling and recycling the vessel in Seattle – is projected to cost $1.2 million. If the ship is contaminated with asbestos, then the cost could go up, Ferris said.

State law says a ship’s owner is responsible for covering the full cost of removing and disposing derelict vessels, though the state usually foots the bill, according to an investigation by The Associated Press earlier this year.

Since 2003, only 1 percent of owners have repaid the Department of Natural Resources, according to the report.

Stephen Mason, the Star’s owner, faces criminal charges for allowing the ship to fall into disrepair. A conviction could mean up to a year in jail and as much as a $10,000 fine. His next court date is Aug. 28.

Mason could not be reached for comment this week.

When the Star sank it was tied to the Golden West, a 130-foot fishing vessel. The Golden West was moved in October. Moving the Star in mid-July was the best option because it avoids disrupting salmon migration patterns, Ferris said.

The Star is no stranger to making headlines.

In 1978, the Coast Guard found $74 million in marijuana on the vessel, the biggest pot bust in the area at the time.