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Coast Guard vessel recovery in early stages

Two U.S. Coast Guard members inspect a vessel that was tossed onto a beach in St. Croix, U.S. Virgin Islands, during a 2008 hurricane. Coast Guard officials said that as many as 500 ships could litter local waters in the wake of hurricanes Irma and Maria, according to a report on Saturday, Oct. 21, 2017.

BARRY BENA/U.S. COAST GUARD

By BRIAN O'CONNOR | The Virgin Islands Daily News, St. Thomas | Published: October 21, 2017

ST. THOMAS (Tribune News Service) — Officials say as many as 500 ships could litter local waters in the wake of hurricanes Irma and Maria, ranging from small personal sailboats to a ferry to a large yacht sunk on top of another vessel.

Newly appointed Environmental Protection Agency Region 2 Administrator Pete Lopez attended a briefing at the Coast Guard's Incident Command Center in Yacht Haven Grande on Thursday.

Lopez, appointed Sept. 28, made his inaugural visit to the Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico this week.

The center uses an incident task structure derived in part from Federal Emergency Management Agency's task-based structure, and is focused on coordinating efforts among the Coast Guard, the V.I. Department of Planning and Natural Resources, EPA, the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration, and the Army Corps of Engineers.

The most recent count at the Incident Command Center on Thursday showed 319 vessels have so far been identified: 127 on St. Thomas, 9 on Water Island, 76 on St. Croix and 107 off St. John.

Coast Guard officials have divided each of the major islands into sectors designated by a letter from the Greek alphabet, and using aerial photography supplied by the NOAA, had identified potential sunken vessels, said Cmdr. Dave Reinhard.

From there, Coast Guard personnel have to verify that the potential sunken vessels are actually sunken vessels and not, say, reefs or stray rocks, Reinhard said.

"Sometimes it was a boat, but someone moved it," he said. "We are seeing people salvaging their own boats."

Salvage operations have not yet begun in earnest, though Coast Guard officials anticipate the effort to raise vessels from local waters could take months, Reinhard said.

"We're here until the mission's done," he said.

That can end one of two ways, Reinhard said.

"Either all of the pollution's been removed or the DPNR says 'We can take it from here,'" he said.

Environmental concerns – particularly fuel stored in tanks aboard local vessels and batteries used to collect solar energy – are front and center as the Coast Guard moves to evaluate each vessel, said Dilshad Perera, an EPA employee.

"St. John, in the hardware stores they actually sold the stuff to basically run small equipment on the vessels," he said. "So that, to me is going to be the three major environmental issues."

At Lopez's briefing, Reinhard said vessel recovery was only just beginning.

"Really, the overall attempt right now is we're just trying to get in touch with people," he said. "If we can find the owners, we can find out what their intentions are with the vessels, then we can make plans on disposition, whether they're going to move 'em, whether the insurance company is going to move 'em, whether they want to just write them off and turn over property to DPNR."

In some cases, particularly St. John, where numerous boats have been wrecked in the area of Hurricane Hole, officials are working to set up partnerships with the National Park Service, which has jurisdiction over those waters.

Among the trickier vessels to lift: the 100-foot Culebra II, which is partially sunk near Frenchtown on top of another vessel called The Vindicator. The Lady Virginia, a ferry vessel that used to ply the waters between St. Thomas and St. John, is partially sunk in Krum Bay.

"We're hoping to give as many back, for their owners to take as many as they can, because otherwise there's a waste stream at the other end of this that we're going to have to figure out," Reinhard said.

Local boat owners can contact the Coast Guard at usvidpnr@gmail.com to make their intentions known, officials have said.

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(c)2017 The Virgin Islands Daily News (St. Thomas, VIR)
Visit The Virgin Islands Daily News at www.virginislandsdailynews.com
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