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River Queen: Hands tied

Clay Jonak hopes to move forward with repurposing the 1922 steam ferry, but feels like the state wants him to clear out

JOHN WILLIAM HOWARD - A handful of empty 55-gallon drums rest above a gaping hole in the River Queen's main deck where massive engines used to sit. Several state agencies are concerned that waste on some of the collected vessels - such as fuel or garbage - pose a threat to the surrounding environment.

This story is the second half of a two-part series about the former glory and current state of the historic River Queen.

The journey of the ship once known as the S.S. Shasta, now the aging River Queen, has been equally fascinating over the last several years as it was during its restaurant days in the 1960s.

Decades of neglect and eventual abandonment have degraded the 1922 steam ferry to the point where a tough decision has to be made by owner Clay Jonak: What is to be done with the once-proud Queen?

It’s a question that has drawn the attention of boating enthusiasts to the River Queen and a few dozen other vessels moored on the Columbia River near Goble for some time. But over the last several years, it has become a focus of six local and state government agencies.

JOHN WILLIAM HOWARD - The hallway at the top of the forward staircase remains clear despite years of neglect. Should owner Clay Jonak move forward with his project, the upper deck would be removed.By the way one official described the situation, “Every agency has a piece” of the pie, but no one agency has full jurisdiction.

The U.S. Coast Guard has classified one of Jonak’s vessels, an old military dredging boat used for storage, as “a substantial threat to the environment,” and issued an administrative order to Jonak, forcing him to clean up the site.

The Department of Environmental Quality worries that fuel or other debris might leak from some of the boats and damage the river. The Department of State Lands has similar concerns, but for the surrounding wetlands.

Jonak owns the adjoining land on the shore between the railroad tracks and the river, and has purchased the correct waterway lease to work on the River Queen as it sits in the water.

To be clear, restoring old ships isn’t Jonak’s forte. Besides, it would likely take millions of dollars and countless hours of dedicated work from experts to bring the River Queen back to her 1962 condition.

Jonak, conversely, has specialized in scrapping and repurposing unused boats on the lower Columbia River for more than 30 years, normally buying vessels and tearing them apart for scrap. With the River Queen, Jonak had a different idea: He wanted to convert it into a floating shop or sawmill by taking off the top deck and clearing out the lower area to suit his business.

But close to eight years after Jonak bought the Queen, she still rests in a few feet of water near Goble, her roof partially collapsed, most of her west-facing windows missing and surrounded by a growing crowd of unused tugs, sailboats and barges. Jonak lives in a small dwelling at the crowd’s center, cut off from the shore with the exception of a rickety wooden walkway.

Should the River Queen sink — it has a draft of 12 feet, and the river isn’t much deeper in the summertime — and rest on the bottom, it would cost untold thousands to re-float her. And there are other threats. Asbestos, for example, lurks belowdecks and is wrapped around the old boilers, and would seep into the Columbia River if the boat sank.

The DEQ’s Scott Smith said his agency isn’t considering the River Queen for what the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency designates as “Superfund sites,” which is when the government is forced to spend millions in cleanup costs.

Asbestos shouldn’t be harmful to the river, according to Smith, and the River Queen has been inspected annually for stored oil or other chemicals and has come up clean. Jonak says he has taken care to not let any of the work done on deck fall into the water, and hasn’t done any work below the superstructure of the boat, which is in compliance with state law.

The dredge, called the Multnomah, houses generators and tanks of fuel, along with numerous other 55-gallon drums containing various oils and other substances. Jonak and co-owner of the waterway lease, Rodger Isen, have been working with the Coast Guard to clean up hazardous materials on the dredge by the end of September.

The problem, according to Kyle Owens with the Coast Guard’s Marine Environmental Response Division, is Jonak’s “hands are tied.”

JOHN WILLIAM HOWARD - The forward wheelhouse looks upriver from the top of the River Queen at an area owner Clay Jonak says has become too shallow to move the boat without removing the upper deck.

Fighting the railroad

Much of the controversy comes back to mistakes made in marking Jonak’s property line, which he says was passed down to him by the previous owner. By his understanding, the property stretched from the shoreline to the edge of the highway. From the way Jonak tells it, he used to have the ability to cross the Portland & Western Railroad, and he would park his car on a crumbling piece of the old highway that sits between the rails and where the current highway stands. He also believed his property line to the south was about 150 feet farther upriver, near the original private grade crossing.

Once the line was moved to the correct location, it meant Jonak’s crossing was now void.

P&W is making efforts to cut down on the number of private crossings, meaning they are reluctant to issue new permits. Jonak had hoped to move the crossing upriver to line up with his property, but he says P&W officials told him they wouldn’t even accept his application.

Jonak has butted heads with ODOT, Department of State Lands and the railroad ever since being denied a new private grade crossing. He remembers calling once per week, sometimes more, trying to find someone who would help him with a solution.

But it’s not really up to ODOT. If P&W won’t agree, as one ODOT official suggested they may not, Jonak might never get pedestrian or vehicle access to the River Queen.

JOHN WILLIAM HOWARD - Parts of the River Queen's roof have collapsed on their own as the boat decays in the elements. In the distance is the marina in Goble, which state officials say offers River Queen owner Clay Jonak the legal access he needs, despite his protests.

Fenced off

At one point, officials with ODOT’s Highway Division discovered a collection of vehicles and a Dumpster a short distance down the old highway. Thompson said Jonak told the officials he owned the land, which he didn’t. ODOT told Jonak to move his belongings from public land, and then took down his “no trespassing” signs.

Jonak says some of the vehicles, including two uninsured camper trailers, were buried under blackberries when he bought the land. Because he thought he owned the area between the railroad tracks and the highway, he set to work clearing out the space and immediately moved the vehicles when he was asked by ODOT.

But one day, ODOT constructed a fence across the old section of Highway 30 and signs were put up closing parking between 1 a.m. and 5 a.m., according to Jonak.

Jonak says he wasn’t notified ahead of time. And there’s another problem: No one told the local fire department about the locked gate, and it still doesn’t have access several years later.

Jonak reached out to Columbia River Fire and Rescue Chief Jay Tappan with his concerns — mainly about whether CRFR could access the property in the event of an emergency.

Tappan admitted the addition of the gate would make access more difficult, saying he sympathized with Jonak because emergency personnel weren’t given a key to the gate. In order to get through, they’d have to cut the lock.

It’s not wildly unusual for fire and rescue workers to cut locks, Tappan said, but they often have keys for private timberland gates and gated communities. Not having easy entry through an ODOT gate is unusual, he said. Tappen said he had planned to bring up the issue with the ODOT representative at a safety meeting in July, but never got around to it.

Tappan said Jonak has been friendly, as did Smith, who has been inspecting the River Queen and other boats onsite for the last five years for the DEQ.

DOJ involvement

When P&W became clear about its stance on private grade crossings, and ODOT made a final decision to disallow Jonak from parking his vehicles overnight along the edge of the highway, Jonak seems to have understood he was in a difficult position.

He says he feels as though the state is trying to push him out, and he began looking for ways to simply get back to how things were a few years ago.

His weekly calls to ODOT continued to hit a dead end, and then the state Department of Justice got involved to act in the capacity as ODOT’s legal representation.

In a voicemail and a written letter from the DOJ, Jonak — who admits he didn’t maintain his composure with every call — was told to stop contacting ODOT or risk legal action for harassment.

The Department of Justice may be the designated point agency for all communication regarding the issue, but it has chosen to keep silent. When contacted, DOJ spokeswoman Kristina Edumunson said, “We don’t typically comment on, or confirm, ongoing investigations.”

The request from the DOJ and silence from P&W means Jonak has been left in a precarious position. He doesn’t have the money to fight the state for access to his land, a legal battle he says would cost more than it’s worth. Without legal access via land and with a locked gate between him and emergency personell, his insurance company won’t cover him for any work on the upper sections of the River Queen.

Without permission from the Department of State Lands for electrical, sewer or drinking water access, Jonak has water and diesel delivered a few times a year, and has to barge sewage to Rainier or St. Helens.

“I have to haul my crap away,” Jonak says with an air of irony.

JOHN WILLIAM HOWARD - A single chair is all that remains of a dining area near the boat's stern. State officials say the River Queen and most other boats have been cleaned out of dangerous chemicals, but a dredge on site contains waste fuels and other substances.

Moving forward

With the River Queen stuck in the doldrums, Jonak can’t move forward with the project as he had hoped. He can watch it decay or work on it himself — such was the message from his insurance company. Jonak says he has been forced to sell assets one at a time to survive, buying fuel, food and water, and at times struggling to pay his waterway lease.

Eventually, Jonak warns, things will come to a head. The hull is 93 years old, was inspected in 1998 and found to be in decent condition, but another 17 years in the water have continued to take its toll. The other wooden boats in Jonak’s flotilla in particular are at risk. But while he says the River Queen isn’t sinking, there’s a chance if it continues to sit untouched.

“Everything I own is rotting away,” he says, with a forlorn look out toward an old wooden schooner riding low in the water.

Jonak stressed that his intentions are not to let the boat rot at the bottom of the river. At the very least, he estimates there is around $100,000 in steel scrap should his plans of turning it into a floating workshop fall through. But Jonak says he couldn’t move the boat even if the Coast Guard would let him.

The river has changed since the boat was brought there nearly two decades ago, and silt accumulation both up and down river would make it impossible to tow the River Queen to Longview or Astoria for scrapping, Jonak says, as it’s illegal to perform such work on the water.

In a perfect world, Jonak would like to complete the River Queen’s transformation and operate his business from where the boat is currently moored. It’s why he bought the land to begin with, but as time has gone on and battles with various state agencies have continued, his resources have become depleted.

Jonak says he doesn’t have the money to fight or the means to move, and will eventually run out of things to sell. At the end of the day, he wants clarity and a uniform message from the state.

No officials from the state would say the overall idea is to have Jonak move his operations. Smith said his only objective was to be sure nothing was leaking into the river, and Julie Curtis at the Oregon Department of State Lands said she is only interested in being sure wetlands were protected.

“It seems like they want me out of here,” he said, admitting he didn’t understand why the situation has turned into such a mess.

“I’ve lost sight of what I’m going to be doing,” he said. “Now my focus is about liquidating what I own and revamping my plan.”