Clean-up costs from the grounding of the container ship MSC Napoli off Devon last year are going to leave councils thousands of pounds out of pocket.
The Napoli was stripped of containers before being split in two
Claims for compensation already total more than £65m, according to a marine lawyer handling some of the claims.
But the ship's owners and insurers have a legal limitation fund capped at £15m.
District and county councils will be forced to make up the difference for costs such as policing and use of the fire service.
The MSC Napoli was deliberately grounded off Branscombe in Lyme Bay in January last year after its hull fractured in the English Channel.
Devon County Council spent £44,000 on the clean-up while Devon and Cornwall Police estimated they spent more than £320,000 on the operation.
But they will only get about a third of what they spent back, according to Charles Hattersley, a marine lawyer who has been looking after claims for local fishermen and the National Trust.
He said: "The fund has been set up in the sum of about £15m, quite correctly by the owners and insurers.
"But the total number of claims is in excess of £65m so it looks like the payouts are going to be less than 25p to 30p in the pound.
"I'm afraid that is all that people are looking at getting for their work and effort as a result of assisting the owners and insurers who created the problem in the first place."
Councillor Margaret Rogers of Devon County Council and East Devon District Council said: "All the indications I have had from officers is that we are likely to bear a good deal of the cost.
"I don't see the government coming up with some funds.
Containers were washed up on the beach
"I fear Lyme Bay will become a haven for stricken ships and we will have to pay up again."
The ship's owners and insurers are entitled to limit their liability under the Merchant Shipping Act 1995.
The liability of every cargo ship is based on a formula which takes into account ship's gross tonnage.
But Mr Hattersley, of law firm Ashfords in Plymouth, said: "If the compensation fund falls short then clearly there is a need to revisit the formula."
He also said it was time the government demanded a change in the law so that there was a central fund for cargo ships, which now apply to oil tanker spillages.
East Devon Conservative MP Hugo Swire said it was "unfair" that local authorities were being forced to bear the costs.
"There are lessons to be learnt and those should be incorporated into wider legislation on maritime loss," he said.
The MSC Napoli lost more than 100 containers and was stripped of about 2,300 containers before being split in half in July last year.
The bow section was floated to Northern Ireland.
It is hoped the stern section will be removed from Lyme Bay by the end of April.