Leak from barge sunk in Lake Erie since ’30s probed

Mark Hicks
The Detroit News

Tom Kowalczk and another member of the Cleveland Underwater Explorers were on Lake Erie’s windswept waters Friday when he noticed an odd smell.

His nonprofit dedicated to finding shipwrecks on the Great Lakes was trying to measure a long-submerged vessel the group believes is the Argo, a barge that sank during a storm on Oct. 20, 1937, while reportedly carrying more than 100,000 gallons of oil.

Several times while on a boat some 12 miles northeast of Sandusky, Ohio, Kowalczk, the director of remote sensing, noted a gas-like scent then “a small spot which would sheen out on the surface and expand to maybe one foot in diameter. ... It all dissipated very rapidly.”

Once they wrapped up their diving, Kowalczk and David VanZandt immediately , notified the Coast Guard, which sent a crew to probe the suspected leak.

Days later, officials are still working to determine what is in the water and have restricted access.

Samples of the suspected substance are not yet available; T&T Salvage crews tried to find seepage from the wreck near Kelley’s Island Shoal during a dive early Tuesday but apparently were unsuccessful, said Petty Officer 2nd Class Lauren Laughlin with the Ninth Coast Guard District. “Due to the inclement weather that is supposed to be moving into the area, right now all dive plans have been canceled until further notice.”

Meanwhile, the Coast Guard has established a safety zone about 3 nautical miles east of Kelley’s Island Shoal, extending 1,000 feet around the position, according to a statement. The safety zone remains closed to traffic; vessels cannot enter, transit through or anchor in the regulated area without permission from the Coast Guard patrol commander, Station Marblehead, the agency said.

The Cleveland Underwater Explorers, or CLUE, had been investigating the wreck Friday. The group initially found the Argo, estimated to weigh 421 tons, in August while performing an historical shipwreck side scan sonar search for a schooner believed to have gone under nearby in the 1840s, Kowalczk said. Based on the information CLUE and the Great Lakes Historical Society/National Museum of the Great Lakes provided, the Coast Guard and NOAA concluded it likely was the abandoned Argo.

“In 2013, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration had identified Argo as the greatest potential environmental threat by a shipwreck on the Great Lakes because of her reported cargo of 100,000 gallons of crude oil,” according to the website for the Great Lakes Historical Society, which heads the National Museum of the Great Lakes and its annual shipwreck search program that CLUE helps perform.

While seeking measurements Friday, the group reported “a leak of an unknown substance emanating from the barge and an odor of solvent” to the Coast Guard’s Marine Safety Unit Toledo but failed to spot the outflow underwater, officials said.

Pollution responders with boat crews were deployed that day and over the weekend. Crews reported smelling “a strong odor of a solvent” on Friday and Saturday; a Coast Guard Air Station Detroit aircrew on Saturday reported seeing a 400-yard discoloration on the water near the site Saturday, but a second flight Sunday morning wasn’t able to find any, authorities said.

Since then, “there have been no further sightings or reports of any pollution or any of the solvent that we had seen earlier,” Laughlin said Tuesday night. Results from an overflight conducted by NOAA aircraft using special imaging still were being analyzed.

The Coast Guard is working to determine what kind of cargo filled the 120-foot-by-34-foot barge, which was New York-based and not authorized to sail the Great Lakes when it loaded up in Sault Ste. Marie, said Christopher Gillcrist, executive director of the National Museum of the Great Lakes. “Contemporary reports from 1937 used the term crude oil, but crude oil was used to represent any oil product. ... The suggestion has been this is perhaps byproducts from the steel-making process.”

The leak could be difficult to find since the wreck is covered in zebra mussels and visibility underwater this time of year can be low, Kowalczk said. Still, “it could be full, it could be empty or it could be somewhere in between.”

Even so, Gillcrist said: “This is not the Exxon Valdez, this is not the Gulf of Mexico (oil spill). What is being discharged is probably sporadic and intermittent. It’s not a massive amount of material going into the lake at any one time.”