MOBILE, Ala. (AP) — More than eight years after Hurricane Katrina, work is finally underway to remove some abandoned boats from south Alabama waterways.
Swampy marshes and bayous throughout the area are littered with boats that were abandoned years ago or washed up by hurricanes. Residents have long complained that the boats are ugly and dangerous. Environmentalists say the boats even leach toxins into vulnerable wetlands.
About a dozen residents with homes around the Dog River watershed gathered on the side of the road and cheered during a recent removal operation. Workers used mechanical clam shell claws to drag the remains of one such derelict boat onto a barge to be hauled away.
"We have regulations on the road that if you leave your car on the side of the road, the state picks it up or the local municipality does. But we don't have any regulations that stipulate how to remove a vessel that sunk just off your property," said resident Nick Matranga, a member of Dog River Clear Water Revival.
The nonprofit group had worked to secure the grant money for the boat removal project.
Matranga wants Alabama to enact tougher regulations to ensure boat owners do more to secure their vessels before storms. He also said the owners of the wayward boats should be sought out after storms and be penalized for dumping damaged boats in area waterways.
Dog River Clear Water Revival has $70,000 in grant money from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's marine debris removal program and the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, said Lee Yokel of the Dauphin Island Sea Lab, which is helping to coordinate the project.
The money will fund the removal of 24 boats from April 1 to May 22. Yokel said organizers hope to get more money in the future for additional removal projects. The 24 boats represent just a small number of all of the abandoned boats in south Alabama waterways, she said.
Researchers are studying what the boats do to sensitive wetlands and how to repair the damage.
"Physically, they are ugly. They are an impact to navigation," Yokel said. "But what are they doing to the habitat, what are they doing to the water quality, what might they be doing small crabs or fish or shrimp that might inhabit these waterways?"
Ashely McDonald, a graduate student working with the sea lab, is helping to determine damage to the ecosystem from the boats and has spent many hours investigating the abandoned vessels. McDonald said that while the work is messy, it is crucial to understanding the environmental consequences from so many abandoned boats.
"You are straight up to your hips at least in mud, you are pulling yourself along with poles or whatever you can. There are actually a lot of organisms that live in these little vessels because there are so many nooks and crannies to hide in," she said.
"There are small fish, small crabs and stuff like that, snakes. It is pretty icky," she laughed.
Workers recently found a large eel in one of the abandoned vessels, said Chris Lovvorn, who owns the company contracted to do the boat removal. He said workers relocated the eel using a net and that his crews are careful not hurt any of the creatures that have made homes inside the boats.
Residents stood on the side of Dauphin Island Parkway south of Mobile and cheered as Lovvorn's crew pulled the rusted engine up from a marshy area just off the road.
After years of trying to get the boats removed, Matranga and other residents said they are excited to see something happening before another storm hits the region and tosses more boats into the waterways.
"It is just trash and it is irresponsible for people to leave their vessels sunken like this," he said.