A team of local, state and federal authorities last week were finally able to remove a 47-foot sunken sailboat that had been sitting in the Petaluma River for about two months. Laying in its wake is an ongoing environmental investigation and potential five-figure fines for the boat's owner.
The episode underscored how expensive and complicated the process is to remove sunken or polluting vessels from the waterway connecting Petaluma to San Pablo Bay.
The sailboat initially sank in the Petaluma River on January 12, according to officials. When the vessel was first spotted, it was surrounded by a 60-foot-long oil slick.
The boat's owner, 38-year-old Chad Roughton of Hawaii, was contacted by local authorities and made attempts to move his boat. After the vessel was relocated and sank again, Roughton signed over ownership to the Sonoma County Sheriff's Office and cooperated with law enforcement for the removal process.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency obtained approval to pay for the salvage operation, securing $20,000 in funding to remove the boat.
To recoup that amount, Roughton could face civil penalties, according to Eric Laughlin, a spokesman with the state Department of Fish and Wildlife. The department charges up to $25,000 per violation, and under the federal Clean Water Act, the EPA can fine violators up to $25,000 per day.
Roughton told the Argus-Courier Monday that he does not expect to be fined any amount by the EPA or the Department of Fish and Wildlife, because the boat's sinking was caused by someone who stole the rope which had secured the boat.
Sgt. Ed Hoener of the Sonoma County Sheriff's Marine Unit said the operation to remove the boat involved multiple agencies, including CalRecycle, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the Army Corps of Engineers, the California Department of Fish and Wildlife and lead investigator Deputy Matthew Parlato of the Sonoma County Sheriff's Marine Unit.
"This was about a 45-foot concrete sailboat; those things don't move very easily," Hoener said. "To get that thing out of the water, it takes a lot of personnel, and it takes equipment. It's easier said than done."
Laughlin said removing the boat was a priority due to its status as a pollution and navigational hazard.
"It could have been much worse if we didn't get it out of there, because it's an area where there are a lot of sensitive species," Laughlin said, referring to federally endangered animals such as the California clapper rail.
Laughlin said the boat's masts were leaning towards the main section of the Petaluma River, causing navigational issues as well.
"If (boats) sink inside the channel, it creates a navigational hazard not only to any commercial vessels, like the barges that go up and down the Petaluma River, but to recreational users of the Petaluma River," Hoener said.
The salvage effort — which included a diver working underwater with water pumps and airbags being utilized from above — was an all-day affair on March 10, concluding with the boat arriving in Sausalito at about 7 p.m.
After securing the boat, its fuel tanks were pumped and hazardous materials were removed, including a compressed-gas tank, paint thinner and household waste.
Laughlin said environmental scientists with the Department of Fish and Wildlife are currently evaluating the area of the Petaluma River that was impacted by the vessel. He said the investigation aims to determine how much pollution occurred around the boat.