Juneau makes plans to impound abandoned tugboat after it drags anchor

The Lumberman, a WWII-era tugboat, sits tied up at a city cruise ship dock awaiting impound on Jan. 13. (Photo by Adelyn Baxter/KTOO)

An abandoned tugboat floating in the same spot in Juneau’s Gastineau Channel for more than a year was noticeably absent Monday morning.

Up until now, city and state officials have been reluctant to claim responsibility for dealing with the derelict vessel.

Strong winds and high tides over the weekend caused the tugboat Lumberman to drag anchor from its position on state tidelands. It drifted south, raising concern that it could endanger private or public property.

Port Director Carl Uchytil said the U.S. Coast Guard paid to have the 107-foot vessel towed to one of the city’s cruise ship docks, where it will remain for now.

“Docks and Harbors will craft a plan in the coming days to go through the formal process to impound, either to scuttle it or have it disposed of in some legal and responsible manner,” Uchytil said.

The saga of the Lumberman began long before it first broke free of its mooring in 2018. The city had been trying to get the owner of the derelict vessel to move it for months.

After it drifted up the channel, the city said it was legally the state’s responsibility to dispose of it. But since the Lumberman wasn’t a navigational hazard, it remained where it was.

A local fish hatchery donated an anchor to help keep it in place, and city employees regularly monitored the boat. The nonprofit Marine Exchange of Alaska also put a transponder on the boat to track its movement.

The Coast Guard paid a salvage company to clean up any hazardous material on board. A year ago, the city contracted the same company to pump water off the boat to make sure it stayed afloat.

“There was a lot of stakeholders involved in nursing the Lumberman along, and Mother Nature made its own determination over the weekend and moved it. And so now we’ll deal with it in an appropriate manner,” Uchytil said.

Uchytil said the impound process could involve an auction for the vessel, which still has a good hull. But he said that would come with the understanding that the boat must leave Juneau waters.

“We’ll put some stipulations that we won’t allow it to be sold for $1 and then just moved in some waterway and continue to be a derelict,” he said.

Abandoned vessels like the Lumberman are not an issue unique to Juneau.

“The liability that we see, the public liability with boats that are left or abandoned, it’s a real problem,” said Rachel Lord, executive secretary for the Alaska Association of Harbormasters and Port Administrators. “It’s a problem that we see statewide all across our coast and on our rivers.”

The organization worked hard to get a bill passed that would help prevent scenarios like the Lumberman from playing out repeatedly.

The bill, which was signed into law in 2018, requires vessels to be registered with the state and establishes a derelict vessel prevention program and fund to help with disposal costs. But implementation has been slow.

“It was a huge step in that regard. But like with any law, it’s only as good as your capacity or your interest in enforcing it and utilizing it,” Lord said.

Lord said other states dealing with similar problems have had success creating administrative positions specifically tasked with carrying out and overseeing derelict vessel laws. She hopes to see Alaska follow their example.

The Lumberman is not the first abandoned tug to cause problems in Juneau’s waters. The Challenger, another derelict World War II-era tugboat, sank in the Gastineau Channel in 2014. It cost almost $2 million to dispose of it.

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