The Sacramento Delta's dirty little secret

Petroleum, hazardous waste, and abandoned ships – it's all part of a complex pollution problem taking place on the Sacramento Delta. 

Petroleum, hazardous waste, and abandoned ships...it's all part of a complex pollution problem taking place on the Sacramento Delta.

Petroleum, hazardous waste, and abandoned ships – it’s all part of a complex pollution problem taking place on the Sacramento Delta. 

ABC10 discovered it while looking into a large fuel spill near a San Joaquin River marina. The spill led us to a graveyard of broke down boats threatening marine wildlife.

"It seems simple to me. Somebody should complain,” said Linda Gifford. “Somebody should listen and somebody should do something about it, but that didn’t happen." Gifford is one of the many locals who made complaints about a large crane barge that was leaking fuel near the Rivers Edge Marina.

The cane barge took on water at the end of October. Gifford and her neighbors watched helplessly as the rusty 1940s vessel bled out an untold amount of diesel fuel. The owner of the barge was warned about the leak and given 72 hours to clean up.

The leak was so bad, the U.S. Coast Guard had to step in and contain the spill.

"The smell of diesel was so bad, it hurt your eyes," Gifford said.

About $100,000 in designated federal oil cleanup funds have been set aside to remove the fuel from the barge.

The Coast Guard only responds to oil spills. They do not remove sunken ships.

"That's not the owner’s only boat; he has others that could sink up river," Gifford said.

The owner of the sunken barge is a man by the name of Captain Mike Skarry. Sacramento County and other surrounding counties have cited him numerous times over the past seven years for illegally anchoring his unlicensed vessels.

We contacted the Sacramento County Sheriff’s Department to show us Captain Skarry's boats.

Mark Warren with the Marine Division says the retired captain owns at least two tugboats and two barges.

"We can't just take people’s property,” Warren said. “We have to go through the court system. Mr. Skarry knows how to fight courts."

Even if the county could take possession of Skarry's boats, the county can't afford to do anything with them, Warren said.

"The average boat that sinks costs 200 dollars per foot to remove,” Warren said. “That’s for smaller boats.”

Warren says the county can’t deal with large tug boats.

If the county is lucky to get $200,000 in grant money to remove problem boats, the county has to make a decision. To clean up a bunch of smaller boats or a big one like Mr. Skarry's, the county has chosen to pick up small boats. More than 70 vessels have been removed from the water in the past few years.

Skarry was found at a trailer park not far from his sunken barge. He answered the door with a bandage on his hand and wounds on his feet. With his white hair and weathered features, the captain says he spent four days pumping water out of his barge in an effort to keep it from sinking.

 

“I had stopped the leak,” Skarry said; however, the barge’s hull is now three feet below the water. Days of working in fuel-tainted water burned and scarred the skin on his hands and feet.

Skarry is not the best communicator. He's has a tough sailor mentality. Old photographs on his cluttered desk show him at a younger age.

"I was in the army. Went to Navy dive school," he said. 

Skarry served in the 60s. When he got out of the army he eventually bought a crane barge (the one that sunk), then started working for various government agencies in the Bay Area and Sacramento Delta.

"Drove pile and I picked up boats or whatever they asked," Skarry said.

At one point, Skarry had a contract with several counties on the Delta to clean up abandoned boats. Business was good but took a turn for the worse when his wife got sick.

"She died of breast cancer. It was kind of a drawn out thing," Skarry said.

Things went downhill after his wife died. Skarry lost most of his contracts and his equipment started breaking down. In the end his boats were all he had left.

The more he spoke about the boats, it became apparent that Skarry was attached to them.

"Well yeah, I was working on it since 1971," Skarry said.

Even if he wanted to get rid of his boats he couldn’t.

"That’s what I am trying to tell you. There isn't one. No one will take them."

We did some checking and there really isn't any large ship recycling company on the Delta. Safety laws and recycling regulations have pushed the ship recycling industry out of California. In fact, one of the nearest large ship recycling operations is in Brownsville, Texas.

Getting Skarry's boats out of state would cost a fortune. To make matters worse, metal on old ships are covered in asbestos and lead paint. The metal has to be cleaned before it can be recycled. Often times cleaning costs are more than the metal is worth. Right now the Army Corps of Engineers has a $50 billion backlog of old tug boats to clean up.

The Delta's abandoned boat problem is bigger than it might look.

Illegal vessels much larger than Skarry's boats litter the waters. The sheriff’s department showed us a group of illegally anchored barges.

Someone put mobile homes nearby and a number of people have now lived there for years.

At the edge of the Sacramento County line, we found an island of barges full of scrap metal. It was mysteriously anchored over night with no identification. The barges sit in the middle of a shipping path. The Coast Guard is looking into who owns it.

In most cases, it’s cheaper to "keep an eye" on abandoned or problem boats.

Locals like Linda Gifford find it hard to believe the only solution to the abandoned boat problem is to keep cleaning up after they sink.

"Some people around here just stop reporting them,” Gifford said. “It seems like nothing gets done."

Red tape and funding issues seem to be an ongoing battle, but ABC10 did get a hold of the Department of Fish and Wildlife's Oil Spill Prevention and Response sector.

"With the help of our partners, we have prevented oil spills in abandoned boats," said Mary Fricke, a spokeswoman for OSPR. The department only deals with hazardous cleanup and prevention. We asked them to look into Skarry's boat.

OSPR officials said they will meet with Skarry and investigate his boats. If all goes well they may be able to work with local agencies to remove the petroleum products on Skarry’s boats.

"I don't mind the eyesore as long as the fuel is removed," Gifford said.

Locals know it will take time to get rid the problem boats, but removing the petroleum on Skarry's rigs is a step in the right direction.

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