From a distance, two shrimp trawlers stuck in Jarvis Creek look picturesque. But up closer, it's an embarrassing and hazardous mess of trash in need of a cleanup.
The boats, stuck in the creek since August, pose possible environmental risks, affecting water quality as well as marine and plant life. Their deterioration also creates safety and navigational hazards.
The S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control has put the boat owners on notice -- again. Each must pay an $1,800 fine and remove their vessels within several more days. After that, the fine increases by $100 each day the boats remain in the creek.
But the boats' owners have not removed the vessels despite previous orders from DHEC to do so. It stands to reason they won't comply this time either. Owners of the Lady Essie and the Dianie have said their salvage attempts have been unsuccessful.
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It's a problem playing out in many of the state's coastal towns. In 2009, the S.C. Department of Natural Resources surveyed the state's coastline and identified 209 boats that were derelict, sunken or moored illegally, 25 of them in the Beaufort County area.
But DNR had no money to remove them.
Now, four years later, the number of stranded boats has certainly grown well beyond the Lady Essie and the Dianie.
The quagmire packs a vicious punch to areas like Hilton Head where pristine waterways are a longheld goal, and residents take environmental protection very seriously.
Increasingly, it's up to local municipalities to remove abandoned boats. And that's what must be done in this case. The Town of Hilton Head is evaluating five proposals from marine contractors for the disposal job, which could cost the town six figures or more.
While it's unfortunate that the town must take on this unbudgeted expense, we believe it is necessary. The risk of further deterioration is too great for Town Council to sit by while the state attempts, once again, to resolve the issue . Hopefully, Town Council can strike a deal that spreads the financial burden around to include DHEC and the boat owners.
A DHEC spokeswoman said Friday the agency will file an action in circuit court if the owners don't comply with the latest order. But action by the courts can be slow.
Meanwhile, the boats will continue to fall apart, strewing debris and various unknowns into the water. Residents have reported doors and plastic foam floating in the creek. Local kayak tour guide Mark Palmerlee has hauled away three truckloads of trash falling from the vessels. The boats could also shift and block the channel, posing a navigation hazard.
Now is the time for action, and Hilton Head is the only one capable of doing it quickly.