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Two sunken, toxic boats being hauled from Columbia River

A dive company out of Seattle and a Portland salvage business are working on the Columbia River slough on Hayden Island, next to I-5.

PORTLAND, Ore. — Some promising news on the Columbia River this week. Two of the dozens of sinking, toxic boats we've been showing you in a KGW investigative series, are being hauled away.

A dive company out of Seattle and a Portland salvage business are working on the Columbia River slough on Hayden Island, next to Interstate 5. The black wood and metal they're working to cut up, is part of a tug boat that has been sitting on the bottom for two years.

"It's the remnants of a 1942 ship assist tug. It eventually ended up being a live-aboard and it was essentially abandoned in this moorage," said Walt James, who knows the boat well. The tugboat captain and diver documents what's sunken and dumped in the river for his nonprofit, Columbia Watershed Environmental Advocates, which hopes to clean it up.

"The concern in the water would be metals contamination, heavy metals, and lead is an issue," explained James.

When they're done with that boat, there's another tug boat a few feet away that will be hauled up. It's been down there for 30 years.

James shared photos he took with us last month of the sinking, dilapidated boats that many homeless live aboard near Ross Island and Swan Island on the Willamette River, and also near Troutdale and Hayden Island on the Columbia River. For transients, it's better shelter than a tent on land, but the cleanup of garbage, raw sewage, leaking batteries and oil in the water is so much harder.

James took new photos just last week on Jantzen Beach, where homeless boaters come and go ashore. They show piles of dirty clothes, drug needles, garbage, shopping carts and food wrappers. It's our city's homeless crisis. But it's also an environmental crisis, that's mostly hidden from view.

"That whole riverbank is just peppered with hypodermic needles," said Benjamin Gonzalez, who lives aboard a yacht he's restoring near where this salvage is happening. "I love the clean up and when I can see this type of thing going on, it's very great."

It comes down to money to seize and haul out these boats. The Dept. of State Lands has told KGW it doesn't have enough money to clean up even a fraction of this problem.

"I'm not sure the state needs more money," James told KGW on Monday. "Because the way the state spends money is not very efficient."

State Lands has said it doesn't see a need to ask the legislature for more, despite Washington's derelict boast cleanup program asking for and receiving $5 million to help with their same issue. James says KGW's series of stories on this problem is putting pressure on the state to start doing more.

"It certainly generates interest. The problem is, if it doesn't generate money, nothing is going to happen. This situation today could have been handled a lot differently, a lot more efficiently and a whole lot cheaper. This is a half million dollars right here to fix."

Because of the President's Day holiday, the state wasn't open to ask if taxpayer money or marine board boat registration money is paying for this, but the company doing the salvage operation hinted that it was a private entity.

Gonzalez is hopeful this salvage project is just the beginning.

"It gets me very, very frustrated and angry because I know many, many people love to swim in the river and want to jump off into it in the summer and it's like, ugh," he said.

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