Abandoned Boats (copy)

An abandoned sailboat is aground in the marsh along the Ashley River on Feb. 22. Wade Spees/Staff

The S.C. Legislature is finally taking a look at streamlining the process of getting rid of abandoned boats, including the welcome possibility of private salvage. The bill, sponsored by Rep. Peter McCoy, R-James Island, would advance a solution to a persistent problem bedeviling Charleston and other coastal towns and counties.

As it is, storm-tossed boats sometimes remain marooned in marshes or sunken along river banks for years before they’re removed, partly because of an overly complex process of having them declared abandoned and partly because there’s no dedicated funding mechanism for removing them. The responsibility falls to the state Department of Health and Environmental Control (DHEC), which has relied primarily on federal grants in the past. The most recent round of local boat cleanups was in 2015.

But Rep. McCoy wants to change all that, and give local governments the authority to fish out wrecks and other abandoned vessels. His bill doesn’t provide funding for getting the job done, but it does open the door for municipalities and county sheriff’s departments to seek funding. That’s a step in the right direction.

The bill, expected to reach the House floor this week, would also open abandoned vessels to private salvage. Any vessel declared abandoned for at least 90 days could be claimed by anyone or any entity. That’s a real possibility, for vessels that are still afloat.

In the Charleston area, about 25 derelict vessels have been identified. At least four wrecked sailboats, most victims of Hurricane Matthew, are visible from the Ashley River bridges.

The problem has gotten so bad in Hilton Head’s Broad Creek that a private group has started raising money to salvage or junk at least eight abandoned vessels.

Even if the bill passes, the need for public funding will remain. Though some abandoned boats can be simply towed away and hauled out on ramps or at boat yards, others have to be refloated or pulled from the water with cranes. And federal grant funding generally covers only abandoned vessels wrecked by storms.

Mr. McCoy’s bill has the potential to speed up abandoned boat removals and open the process to local governments, salvagers and environmental groups. But the Legislature must also move to create a permanent fund for the removal of abandoned vessels. Options include dedicating a cut of personal property taxes on boats or from registration fees.

In Washington state, for instance, $3 from each boat registration generates about $800,000 per year for abandoned boat removals. Florida’s Fish and Wildlife Commission funds a grant program for reimbursing local governments for removing abandoned boats.

The Legislature should approve Rep. McCoy’s bill and follow it up with dedicated funding.