The U.S. Coast Guard is moving ahead – very, very carefully, it says – with plans to recover hundreds of thousands of gallons of fuel from a sunken barge that's been sitting at the bottom of Lake Erie for more than 70 years.
The barge is believed to be the Argo, which sank in the 1930s and was reportedly carrying some 200,000 gallons of petroleum products, including crude oil.
For years, no one was sure exactly where the Argo went down, until shipwreck hunters discovered it this summer.
Four of the tanks on the barge were open, but eight remain sealed, and the Coast Guard still isn't sure what's inside them.
But they know they don't want it sitting at the bottom of the lake, because the Argo is considered to be the biggest pollution threat from a shipwreck still in the Great Lakes.
This fall, diving crews working with the Coast Guard detected and plugged a pinhole-sized leak in one of the barge's tanks.
Test results showed that leak was primarily benzene, which is often found in gasoline and can be a serious health hazard.
But Coast Guard spokesman Thomas McKenzie says if it's mostly benzene in the Argo, the environmental risk really isn't that high.
“It’s more of a danger to the responders there on the scene itself,” says McKenzie. “Anytime you have a sunken vessel with cargo on board, there’s always the potential for a threat to the environment. But in this case, it’s nine miles offshore. And benzene is a chemical that, once it rises to the surface, it puffs away and evaporates immediately. This, compounded with the water action on the lake surface, kind of breaks it up and evaporates it immediately.”
McKenzie says crews did a test dive recently to gather a sample from one of the tanks, and put out a safety warning the day before telling people in the area they may smell a “sweet, aromatic, or gasoline smell,” but he says they didn’t hear anything back.
He says the Coast Guard is continuing to assess what’s in the barge’s cargo tanks, and will soon set up equipment to pump the cargo up to the surface.
“The plan will be long-term to ‘hot tap’ the tank,” he says, which means attaching a device to the tops of tanks to draw out the contents, while simultaneously replacing the voids with lake water.
“For this operation, safety is paramount. Dive and salvage operations, there are just so many pieces that have to be aligned perfectly before we can proceed with the operation itself,” McKenzie says.
Crews will start assembling pumps by the end of this week.