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Abandoned fiberglass boats are presenting environmental hazards

EMILY FENG, HOST:

In the 1960s, fiberglass was a boon to the boating industry. It's cheap and durable but has a limited lifespan. And getting rid of it is expensive. So boat owners across the country are abandoning their aging vessels. From member station WVTF, Sandy Hausman reports on one man's efforts to address this environmental problem.

SANDY HAUSMAN, BYLINE: Mike Provost has always loved the water. He joined the Navy after high school and served for 21 years. These days, you'll find him cruising the Lynnhaven, a river near his home in Virginia Beach. He motors past a state park, where he likes to swim with his kids. That's where, just over a year ago, he spotted an abandoned boat. On board, he found fuel, quarts of oil and other toxic chemicals.

MIKE PROVOST: So I called 30 different offices. No one had the funding or approval to do anything about it. And I was explicitly told that if I personally didn't take care of it, no one would.

HAUSMAN: So he started a nonprofit to deconstruct derelict vessels and take them to landfills.

(SOUNDBITE OF CREAKING)

HAUSMAN: His largest job was here in Norfolk Harbor - a twin-masted sailboat stuck in the mud. Provost needed a crew of six, a barge and crane to dismantle it. The bill, paid by donors, was $28,000. It is illegal for people to dump their boats in state waters, but the law is rarely enforced. And back on his boat, Provost says some people escape responsibility by selling their old boat for a song or giving it away.

PROVOST: If I can sell my 1985 40-foot boat for $100, that's going to save me thousands of dollars in having to dispose of it.

(SOUNDBITE OF CICADAS SINGING)

HAUSMAN: Cicadas sing at a pristine marsh on Virginia's coast, where Jim Deppe complains that abandoned boats pollute the water and the views. He's been tracking the problem for a local environmental group, Lynnhaven River Now, for more than a decade and has watched as boats piled up.

JIM DEPPE: In southern Virginia Beach on the North Landing River, there's a derelict boat graveyard where people have just rubbed off all the identification marks off the boat and pulled them up into the marsh and sunk them.

HAUSMAN: As boats degrade, tiny bits of plastic get into the water, into fish and into people or animals that consume the fish. Officials in Virginia know of at least 230 derelict vessels. But with a quarter of a million registered boats in the state, they fear many more could be out there. Abandoned boats are found in every coastal state and in lakes and rivers. Nancy Wallace with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration says there's no market for recycled fiberglass.

NANCY WALLACE: There are some really great pilot studies that are going on right now looking at recycling of fiberglass in the manufacturing of concrete, which is very promising and shown to be successful. But it is logistically challenging and expensive.

HAUSMAN: The U.S. Coast Guard sometimes moves boats that pose a navigational hazard, and some states have programs to remove them before they become a pricey and dangerous mess. In Florida, for example, NOAA's Nancy Wallace says hundreds of agents inspect boats and issue warnings and citations.

WALLACE: If they start to notice that a vessel may become abandoned, they'll try to work with the owners to get that vessel out before it becomes a problem.

HAUSMAN: Other states help owners to dispose of old boats for free or charge recreational boaters a fee to help fund removal. That money will likely be needed in the years to come, since boat sales soared during the pandemic.

For NPR News, I'm Sandy Hausman in Virginia Beach.

(SOUNDBITE OF PINK OAK'S "SATURN") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Sandy Hausman joined our news team in 2008 after honing her radio skills in Chicago. Since then, she's won several national awards for her reporting from the Society of Professional Journalists, the Society of Environmental Journalists, the Radio, Television and Digital News Association and the Public Radio News Directors' Association.