For Virginia’s Department of Wildlife Resources conservation officers, dealing with sunken boats is one of their most challenging jobs. They often face an uphill battle that can sometimes result in cases ongoing for years with boats remaining unmoved underwater.
There are nearly a dozen sunken boats known to be in Smith Mountain Lake. Each one is a headache for conservation officers.
“We would prefer to have all of them removed tomorrow,” said Sgt. James Slaughter.
While boats sinking at the lake is a rare occurrence, it is usually taken care of immediately. Boats that are insured or have responsible owners are usually raised within hours.
Slaughter said it is when the owner doesn’t take responsibility and even avoids law enforcement that things can become a challenge and can draw out cases months or even years. In cases like these, there are three main obstacles that officers face.
One of the biggest is finding the owner of the boat. Slaughter said they often enlist the help of divers from the Smith Mountain Lake Marine Volunteer Fire Department for help in identifying the boat and finding the registration numbers on the vessel while it is underwater.
“The [Smith Mountain Lake Marine Volunteer] Fire Department has been a great help for us,” Slaughter said.
Even when a registration number is located, Slaughter said it is still not a guarantee that they can find the owner. If a boat is sold to someone the previous owner is required to notify DWR that the vessel has been sold. Boats are sometimes sold and resold multiple times without changing the title, which Slaughter called “title skipping.”
In those cases, officers sometimes have to track down multiple previous owners until the current owner can be located. When found, officers can sometimes have trouble even reaching them.
That is a second major obstacle for the DWR. It can be difficult for officers to find the owner once they know who it is.
Slaughter said that there are efforts to find and contact owners as soon as a sunken boat is discovered. In rare cases owners avoid calls from officers. In those instances, he said an owner usually is charged with obstruction or contamination of a state waterway, a class 1 misdemeanor.
If the owner of a sunken boat lives in or has moved to another state, it can be difficult to bring them back to Virginia to face charges. Slaughter said commonwealth’s attorneys in both Franklin and Bedford counties historically have not agreed to pursue extradition where officers bring the owner back to the state to face charges.
The costs involved in extraditing a person back to the state is often seen as too much for a class 1 misdemeanor. “It just doesn’t rise to the level of doing so,” Slaughter said.
In those cases, sunken boats can remain in the lake while the owners avoid charges by remaining out of state.
When an owner is located and charged for obstruction or contamination of a waterway due to a sunken boat, Slaughter said it can sometimes take months for the case to go before a judge. And judges don’t always rule to remove a sunken boat, he said, leading to another obstacle for officers.
In the case of a sunken boat currently located near Bay Rock Marina, Slaughter said the judge dismissed that case against the owner. In that instance, he said officers cannot charge the owner again, and there is no one else they know to be responsible.
Slaughter said even if a person or organization were to agree to raise any of the sunken boats around the lake, it would still be an expensive and painstaking process. The cost to raise a boat can be as much as $10,000, not to mention the time it would take to apply for the title of an abandoned watercraft, which would be required to move the boat.
Most people or organizations are unwilling to take ownership of a sunken boat to raise it since they would then take responsibility for it and any complications that arise from trying to remove it. “Once they switch it over to their name, they are on the hook now,” Slaughter said.
Even if DWR had a fund available to raise a sunken boat, Slaughter said there is currently no location on the lake where they could be stored until an owner could be found. “In addition to all these challenges, where does the boat go?” he said.
Slaughter said in extreme cases where sunken boats are leaking excessive amounts of gasoline or other hazardous materials, the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality is called to assist in cleanup. They can even raise the boat in some instances to avoid contaminating the lake further.
There has been one sunken boat case that received attention in 2006 due to the stiff penalties to the owner. A Lynchburg woman was sent to jail when she did not raise a boat she owned that had sunk in the lake.
Lt. Greg Funkhouser charged the woman in the case with illegal dumping. He said the number of issues of sunken boats around the lake declined sharply following the charges, possibly due to people hearing about the case.
“As time progresses, people forget,” Funkhouser said. He said commonwealth’s attorneys haven’t pursued sunken boat cases like they have in the past, and judges haven’t passed down tough sentences like the one in 2006. That could have led to an uptick in cases with people less concerned about consequences, he said.