State Assumes Lead Role in Moving Stranded Boat off Norton Point Beach

By MARK ALAN LOVEWELL

Favorable tides may help in the removal of a 71-foot abandoned sea scalloper that has been stranded on Norton Point Beach for nearly two weeks, raising concerns about the environmental effects both on the beach and on the coastal birds nesting nearby.

The New Bedford vessel Midnight Rider could be removed as early as Thursday, with officials looking at astronomical high tides this week to help with its removal.

The state Division of Waterways, working with the state Department of Conservation and Recreation, has taken responsibility for the cost of removal of the vessel, according to a spokesman from the state.

"At this point we are working with federal, state and local authorities to determine the best way to remove the vessel, as quickly as possible and with as little environmental impact," said Vanessa Gulati, a spokesman from the state Executive Office of Environmental Affairs.

On the night of Friday, June 30, a U.S. Coast Guard vessel and helicopter came to rescue the captain and crew of the fishing boat after it ran aground on or near Skiff's Island, a part of Wasque Shoal 2.2 miles south of Wasque Point. At the time of the rescue, the vessel was hard aground and taking on water.

On the following morning, with no one aboard, the red and rusty vessel drifted ashore about three-quarters of a mile west of Wasque Point. The vessel came right into an environmentally sensitive area populated by nesting piping plovers and least terns, raising concerns for a number of Island officials. The concerns were quickly compounded by confusion over who was responsible for the boat.

"I'm greatly troubled by [the boat's coming ashore] - even getting there, number one, and still being there," Dukes County manager E. Winn Davis said yesterday. Norton Point Beach is owned by the county.

On July 4, the U.S. Coast Guard had Frank Corp. Environmental Services, a New Bedford firm, remove more than 1,200 gallons of fuel from the vessel. Yesterday, fuel and hazardous materials were removed from the engine room, the engine and generator after an six-hour operation involving four men from the same company.

The Trustees of Reservations, which is overseeing the fragile barrier beach and provided manpower and assistance in the removal of the hazardous waste, also has assigned a ranger to keep visitors away. The ranger also has been asked to ward off visitors from getting too close to large least tern and piping plover nesting sights.

Edgartown harbor master Charlie Blair yesterday stressed the urgency needed in removing the vessel, which is a hazard to the environment and has made the immediate area a potentially dangerous place for bathers. He said the vessel could not be removed soon enough.

On Friday, a group of four teenagers was spotted swinging from the rigging and jumping into the ocean from aloft. Chris Kennedy, Islands regional director for the Trustees, said the ranger assigned to oversee the wreck had stepped away from the vessel only for a short time.

"People are going to get killed," if the vessel stays where it is, Mr. Blair said, adding: "Do you remember The Bunker?"

The bunker was a huge concrete structure left over from World War II which became the site of many serious injuries as swimmers either accidentally or deliberately swam amid the debris. The bunker was later blown up, at great expense.

Mr. Blair said that when he was talking to state and federal officials last week, it appeared as though no one was going to move on the vessel's removal. "The Coast Guard refused. They didn't want to do anything. They take oil off vessels, but I think a lot of people screwed up."

Another concern, said Mr. Blair, was that the abandoned vessel could be blown over into Katama Bay by a hurricane.

Edgartown officials also have called lawmakers in Washington, D.C., to help expedite the process.

Mark Forest, chief of staff with Cong. William Delahunt, said yesterday: "We've been in touch with the Coast Guard and have asked them to take another look at what they can do under their authority."

Lieut. James Weaver of the U.S. Coast Guard region confirmed yesterday that the Coast Guard's involvement has ended. "Our interest began when there was a call for help. We conducted the search and rescue. We went into an environmental response to remove any pollution from the vessel."

When it became clear that the owner of the vessel could not fund the salvage of the vessel or the necessary environmental protections, the U.S. Coast Guard federalized the project.

"We used the oil spill liability trust fund, when the responsible party didn't have the means or could not take responsibility or doesn't have the means or prevent or clean up a spill. In this case it was to prevent a spill," Mr. Weaver said.

Mr. Weaver said the Coast Guard is doing its own investigation into the circumstances that led the vessel to be adrift. He would not comment whether that investigation would include why no one was contacted that the vessel was adrift and later came ashore at an environmentally sensitive barrier beach with nesting coastal birds.

Mr. Kennedy said on Saturday a U.S. Coast Guard chief warrant officer did an inspection of the vessel to see if it would float.

"The fishing boat had lost its rudders. Its propellers were cupped," Mr. Kennedy said, "which suggests that they drove that boat right up on the shoal. After the fishing boat was abandoned, the boat floated. The big question is whether the vessel will float. The Coast Guard says yes."

From Thursday through today, there have been conference calls between the interested parties.

Mr. Kennedy said he is deeply concerned about whether the salvage operation can be scheduled easily. Weather is a big factor, though the tides are running right this week. "At high tide, it floats all over the place," Mr. Kennedy said. "There is a tough approach: You have a large offshore bar which is 100 yards offshore from where the boat is located. The logistical challenge will be pulling it off. It has to be a huge tugboat," he said.

Last week the vessel was parallel to the beach; now it is pointing bow first, toward the shore.

Mr. Kennedy said any time a crew is working on the fishing boat, the vessel draws a crowd. He said his rangers will be on hand to make sure that when the right time comes to move the vessel, the public will be kept away from the nesting coastal birds.

"This has been a very frustrating process as a beach manager, but I have to take a step back and admit it is really heartwarming that the federal, state, county, local and private interests are working together," Mr. Kennedy said, adding:

"Everyone has been responsive. I think the U.S. Coast Guard has been as concerned about the leaking of fluids as we have. We have said from the beginning that any amount of spill will have a detrimental impact, especially if it is ingested by the birds."