Stranded New Bedford scalloper remains on Norton Point Beach while state officials work to salvage it
Contract negotiations are in the works between the Massachusetts Executive Office of Environmental Affairs (EOEA) and a Massachusetts towing and salvage company to remove the Midnight Rider, the 71-foot commercial fishing vessel from New Bedford that washed up on Norton Point Beach nearly two weeks ago.
Last week, Coast Guard officials estimated that the boat would be removed from its spot on the barrier beach that connects Chappaquiddick Island with Katama within a few days of its arrival, but the Midnight Rider hasn't budged.
The state jumped in to find a way to remove the vessel from the beach after Coast Guard officials basically washed their hands of responsibility, said Edgartown harbormaster Charlie Blair. Mr. Blair said members of the state's Congressional delegation were asked to help last week after it appeared the boat might remain where it sat while various parties tried to decide who would remove it.
Midnight Rider awaits removal effort whose terms remain under negotiation between state environmental officials and a commercial salvor. Photo by Julia Spiro
Yesterday, Capt. Charles Mitchell of Mitchell Towing and Salvage Company, based in Fairhaven, said that his company is evaluating a contract offered by the state for what he described as "wreck removal." Mitchell Towing was the low bidder in the state search. Captain Mitchell said he was not satisfied with the contract that the state presented him, because it would have made him and his company liable for damages of any sort that might occur in the removal process, for instance an oil spill. Mr. Mitchell drafted a contract that would suit him and sent it off to state officials, but no agreement has been reached.
Mr. Mitchell said that if a contract can be agreed to, he is prepared to begin work as early as tomorrow, weather permitting.
"It might be a long process," he said. "It's not just a matter of towing, since it's right up on the beach. It's not a towing job, it's a salvage or wreck removal." Mr. Mitchell said that his tug, Jaguar, is unable to get closer than half a mile away from Midnight Rider because of the shallow water, so Tuesday he and his crewed loaded more than half a mile of towing hawser aboard Jaguar, along with other necessary equipment, in preparation for the work.
Shortly after the scalloper first went aground during the early hours of July 1, Kevin Arrula, the owner and captain of the Midnight Rider, hired Tucker-Roy Marine Towing and Salvage Company to remove her. But removal of the uninsured vessel has now become the headache of the EOEA. According to Lieutenant James Weaver of Coast Guard Sector Southeastern New England, the switch of responsibility occurred because the owner was judged to be financially unable to remove the boat.
"The Coast Guard federalized the project," Lieutenant Weaver explained, "which means that they accessed the oil spill liability trust fund. We were allowed to hire a contractor to go on board to remove fuel and oil from the boat. That's pretty much the extent of our involvement in the vessel. We don't use that trust fund for salvage."
While Lieutenant Weaver said that the Coast Guard will not be leading the effort to remove the vessel from the beach, they will be on site to assist and oversee.
Yesterday, Mr. Blair said that according to the salvage companies he talked to, the Coast Guard did not broadcast a radio alert for commercial assistance. "Otherwise a tow boat could have been there at first light and this would have never happened, " he said. "Nothing was put out."
He said the one spur to the removal effort is the presence of piping plovers, an endangered shore bird that has often been at the center of controversial efforts to restrict beach access.
Mr. Blair said that Chris Kennedy, regional supervisor of The Trustees of Reservations (TTOR), which manages Norton Point Beach for the county, has worked tirelessly contacting state and federal officials about removing the boat.
"If we get rid of this boat," said Mr. Blair, "It will be because of the plovers."
The boat went aground after it began to take on water, according to its owner. Midnight Rider first went aground near Muskeget Channel, which lies between Chappaquiddick and Nantucket. After receiving several radio calls from the Midnight Rider stating that they needed assistance, the Coast Guard launched rescue helicopters from Air Station Cape Cod and rescue boats from Stations Brant Point and Menemsha.
A Jayhawk helicopter hoisted Captain Kevin Arrula, 40, Donald Bachand, 40, and Roy Lasham, 40, off the boat in good condition around midnight.
Over the course of the next few hours, the boat floated off the shoal and drifted west, eventually ending up high and dry on Norton Point Beach. The vessel landed at the western end of the two-mile-long beach in an area currently closed to public access to protect nesting shorebirds from any disturbance.
Last week, a private company spent an entire day removing the 1,200 gallons of diesel fuel that were onboard, lightening the boat by 7,200 pounds. Removing the oil was the top priority, as an oil spill might have resulted in disastrous environmental consequences.
When asked why the boat was allowed to drift to shore in the first place, Scott Carr, US Coast Guard Chief Petty Officer and District 1 spokesman, said that it was the captain's decision to abandon the boat, not the Coast Guard's. "We're not responsible for the vessel," he said last week. "Our primary mission is to save the people on board the boat."
While officials are working to remove the boat from the shore, TTOR is experiencing the environmental and financial consequences of the vessel's presence. Chris Kennedy, TTOR regional supervisor, said on Tuesday that "it's turning into a huge strain. The staff here has started calling it 'the boat from hell.'"
Mr. Kennedy said that in order to keep crowds off of the boat and away from the nearby nesting birds, TTOR has stationed a ranger by the boat 24 hours a day. In the past week, there have been two incidents involving teenagers visiting the boat at night, endangering both themselves and the nesting birds. Meanwhile, according to Mr. Kennedy, several least terns chicks that recently hatched have lost access to their greatest food source, which is the shoreline directly in front of the boat. "These chicks are not putting on weight that they need to survive," he said. "There's no way to force them to another area. They're not feeding naturally."
Vanessa Gulati, spokesman for the EOEA, said on Tuesday that "we'd like to remove the boat as quickly as possible, with as little impact as possible."