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Governor testifies in ship trial.

Byline: LARRY BACON The Register-Guard

COQUILLE - Gov. John Kitzhaber told a Coos County jury Wednesday that he doesn't want the New Carissa to set a bad example.

"I would hate to set a precedent that you can dump a ship on the Oregon Coast and walk away from it," Kitzhaber said from the witness chair in what is expected to be a monthlong trial.

The state of Oregon is suing Taiheiyo Kaiun Co. Ltd. of Japan and two of the company's subsidiaries that owned and operated the 639-foot New Carissa.

The state wants a court order requiring removal of two pieces of the ship's stern from the Coos Bay North Spit.

If the defendant declines, the state seeks an amount sufficient to cover the cost of hiring a salvage operator to do the job, expected to cost up to $25 million.

In addition, the state is asking for $1,500 per day in "storage costs" dating to the Feb. 4, 1999, grounding of the chip carrier in a storm, as well as an unspecified amount of compensation for damage to the beach. A salvage team towed the bow section out to sea where it was sunk, but similar efforts to dispose of the stern section failed in October 1999.

The Taiheiyo Kaiun defense team disputes the state's claim that the grounding occurred because of negligence by the ship's crew and is expected to introduce expert testimony that the 1,500-ton remains cannot be safely removed and need to stay put.

Kitzhaber, who said being called as a trial witness was a first for him, testified for about two hours and calmly answered dozens of questions from attorneys representing both sides.

In his testimony, Kitzhaber repeatedly contended that Oregon's beach law and state land use goals required him - and the State Land Board that he chairs - to take legal action once it became evident in 2000 that the New Carissa's owner was not planning to remove the stern section as promised in 1999.

The governor said Oregon's beaches are one of the state's most treasured natural resources. "Our job is to preserve and protect them for present and future generations," he said.

Kitzhaber noted the advice of a British salvage expert, Phil Birkenhead, who testified Tuesday that the stern section could safely be removed. The governor acknowledged that salvage work is dangerous and that someone could get killed or injured trying to remove the wreck.

"But I think what you have to weigh is the risk of trained professionals doing their job against the risk of an 18-year-old going out on graduation night and trying to paint his class number on the wreck," Kitzhaber said.

Under cross-examination from defense attorney Roman Silberfeld of Los Angeles, Kitzhaber acknowledged there are other shipwrecks on public beaches - such as the remains of the Peter Iredale, which drifted onto the beach near what is now Fort Stevens State Park in 1906 and is now a tourist attraction.

Kitzhaber conceded someone could get hurt on the Peter Iredale or on the wreckage remaining from the Sujameco, a freighter that washed ashore in 1929 on the Coos Bay North Spit three miles north of the New Carissa.

But the governor said the New Carissa is the first ship to wreck on an Oregon beach since passage of the state's beach law in 1967.

If the wrecked freighter cannot be removed, the state seeks damages to be determined by the jury.

Asked by the state's lead attorney, William Wheatley, for his estimate of what the damage would be, Kitzhaber said he believes it to be "incalculable"

"This is a public treasure," he said. "It's part, I think, of who we are in Oregon."

Wheatley said later that the rest of the trial will feature expert witnesses from both sides offering testimony on two issues: whether the New Carissa's operator was negligent in causing the ship to go aground, and whether the wreckage on the beach constitutes a "negligent trespass" that obligates the owner to remove it or pay damages.

Melinda Merrill, a spokeswoman for the ship's owner, said the defense will provide evidence that no negligence occurred and that the owners were cooperating with the state much longer than Kitzhaber indicated.

Yuichi Ishikawa, former president and now an adviser for Taiheiyo Kaiun, was among those at the trial Wednesday.

"We take this situation very seriously and have worked very hard for the last 3 1/2 years to do the right thing," Ishikawa said.

"We tried to cooperate with the state. But these efforts were halted because the state sued us."
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Title Annotation:Lawsuit: John Kitzhaber insists the stern of the New Carissa must be removed from the beach.; Disasters
Publication:The Register-Guard (Eugene, OR)
Geographic Code:1U9OR
Date:Oct 10, 2002
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