Once a marvel, USS Plainview now a pollution concern
By LUKE WHITTAKER | The Daily Astorian | Published: April 11, 2019
HUNGRY HARBOR, Wash. (Tribune News Service) — Less than 2 miles east of the Astoria Bridge, on the mudflats of Hungry Harbor, lays what once was a modern marvel.
Launched in 1965, the USS Plainview was the Navy’s biggest and fastest hydrofoil, a 210-foot, 320-ton prototype built by Lockheed in Seattle. The sleek aluminum vessel was powered by twin turbo fan jet engines, capable of speeds exceeding 50 knots as it rose 10 feet above the water on three struts.
In December 1968, Popular Mechanics dubbed it, “The biggest fastest flying boat yet.” Design and construction cost nearly $21 million, equivalent to more than $80 million today.
Once considered an answer for Soviet submarine warfare, the Navy’s fascination with fast hydrofoil ships was somewhat short-lived. The experimental prototype was abandoned due to cost a few years later.
Now, the Plainview generates agency concern as a possible source of pollution.
In 1978, the ship was decommissioned and sold to a private buyer for $128,000. Later that year, the vessel was brought by tug from the Puget Sound to Youngs Bay by Lowell Stambaugh, who purchased it as an investment following a lucrative salmon season.
Stambaugh, with help from his brother, planned to turn the vessel into a processing ship to add to their expanding fleet. He estimated the ship could possibly pack 1 million pounds or more of frozen fish in a palletized layout. He estimated it would take a $1 million loan to turn the military vessel into a commercial enterprise.
“My brother and I were ready to renovate it and put it together, but shortly after we bought it interest rates went super high — they exceeded 20 percent,” Stambaugh recalled. “It seemed like a bad time to borrow a million dollars, so I didn’t.”
Stambaugh decided to wait. After waiting nearly a decade, he gave up on refurbishing the vessel.
“By that time, many things had shifted and I decided not to put the boat in service. Instead, I started to scrap it,” he said.
After about a decade on Youngs Bay, the Plainview was towed to Hungry Harbor.
Stambaugh started the scrapping process but estimates that 500,000 pounds of aluminum still remain on the vessel.
The hull, a longtime curiosity for people passing by, has caught the attention of the Washington Department of Natural Resources.
“It does pose a concern,” said Troy Wood, the derelict vessels removal program manager for the department. “A large portion is on state-owned lands. There are contaminants in there, some that we may not even know about. It’s just waiting for the hull to corrode through to be released.”
Lead paint and asbestos were popular materials during the period the boat was built, and can slowly leach into surrounding habitat.
“They slowly contaminate the environment in which they’re laying,” Wood explained. “The same contaminants have been found in salmon and orcas after autopsy.”
Removing the colossal vessel, however, would come with a considerable expense.
“It would be extremely expensive, because it’s metal-hulled and military grade,” Wood said. “There are few places to haul out and deconstruct — perhaps a dry dock in Puget Sound or Portland, but that alone would be expensive to move a vessel that size that far.”
A vessel deconstruction facility expected to open in Ilwaco in 2020 could be a possible solution. But there are bigger priorities that pose a greater risk in Pacific County, Wood said, including the Hero on the Palix River in Bay Center and the St. Michele on the Willapa River in South Bend.