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Meet the guy who discovered the shipwreck believed to be the Argo

Oct 27, 2015

The Coast Guard is investigating a leak from a 78-year-old tank barge in western Lake Erie that's believed to be the Argo.

It sank in a storm in 1937.

Records show it was carrying about 100,000 gallons of crude oil when it sank. No one knows yet what exactly is still on board.

A dive team with the Cleveland Underwater Explorers reported a leak of an unknown substance from the barge on Friday night. The Coast Guard confirmed the leak on Saturday, and that triggered the emergency response.

A dive team is on Lake Erie today to try to find the leak.

Lieutenant Greg Scweitzer is with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. He’s helping the Coast Guard with its response effort.

“Whether or not they're successful in identifying the leak depends on whether or not the leak is still active. If it's not, it'll probably be very difficult for the divers to determine where that source is.”

Tom Kowalczk discovered this tank barge on August 28, 2015.
Credit Tom Kowalczk, CLUE

He says the wreck is covered in zebra mussels. That makes it hard to tell if there are cracks in the hull.

The Coast Guard says there’s no immediate risk to human health.

A trip out to the wreck site

I got a chance to visit the wreck site last week, before anyone discovered it was leaking.

Now, the Coast Guard has set up a restricted zone around the wreck site. But last Thursday, when I took a ride on Tom Kowalczk's shipwreck searching boat Dragonfly, the barge was not known to pose any kind of risk.

Kowalczk is the guy who found the tank barge in late August. He's retired from his career working for an automotive supplier. For the past 40 years, he’s spent his weekends looking for shipwrecks.

He dials up the GPS coordinates, we pull away from the marina at Lakeside, Ohio, and motor out into Lake Erie.

We’re about an hour away from shore when he flips on the depth finder and points out a big peak that pops up on the screen.

“There it is right there – we just went over top of the wreck.”

Kowalczk says the Argo was not built for the open waters of Lake Erie.

“As you can tell, we’re rocking pretty good right now and you could imagine a tugboat pulling a fully loaded barge that only had two foot of freeboard. It was only sticking out of the water two feet and these huge, big waves crashing down on it and it didn’t survive the storm,” he says.

Kowalczk says he just happened upon this wreck. He was pulling a side scan sonar device that uses sound waves to map the bottom of the lake to look for a different shipwreck - a wooden sailing ship called the Lexington - and there it was, a steel oil tanker on the bottom of Lake Erie.

“All of the historic records for the sinking said that it was a considerable distance, many miles, five or six miles north of where we are right now. When it showed up on the screen I was really surprised, because I wasn’t expecting to see anything here,” he says.

CLUE looks for shipwrecks in cooperation with the National Museum of the Great Lakes, which provides funding for the fuel costs for the long days of methodical searching out on the lake.

Christopher Gillcrist is the museum's executive director. He says their shipwreck budget for Lake Erie runs about $3,000 to $4,000 a year.

"If the federal or state government hired a cultural resource management firm to go out and look for these wrecks, the cost would be tremendous. Here, we're doing it with volunteers, who are not paid, to go out and look with side scan sonar. It's a great model to go out and find shipwrecks," he says.

He says the story of the Argo's discovery will appear in the museum's journal Inland Seas this winter.

A fortuitous discovery

It turns out the Argo was already on a list of hazardous shipwrecks, but no one knew exactly where it was.

In 2013, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration published a risk assessment of shipwrecks that could be pollution hazards.

The Argo is considered the biggest pollution threat from a shipwreck in the Great Lakes.

Lisa Symons is with NOAA's Office of National Marine Sanctuaries. She wrote the risk assessment.

She says the barge's records indicate it was carrying close to 200,000 gallons of two petroleum products: a product called benzol, and crude oil.

"Our assumption is that it was half and half cargo but we have no way of knowing for sure.”

The Argo tops the list of the five potentially polluting shipwrecks in the Great Lakes.
Credit NOAA

She says they only modeled the pollution threat for the crude oil.

"We didn't model it for the benzol because we believe the benzol probably volatilized at the time of the incident. It's a much lighter fuel and that would've been more likely to be able to get out of the wreck more easily," she says.

Symons says the barge had been loaded with its cargo not long before it sank. Now, everyone is wondering how much of that oil is still on the barge.

First, the Coast Guard has to investigate the leak. Then, it’ll look into how to deal with what’s still on board.