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Recently discovered Lake Erie shipwreck sparks an emergency response from Coast Guard

Oct 24, 2015

Update - Monday, October 26, 10:10 a.m.:

The Coast Guard is sending out a crew from Station Marblehead in Ohio along with members of the Atlantic Strike Team from New Jersey to the wreck site this morning. They'll start doing air monitoring at the site. 

Coast Guard spokesman Petty Officer 3rd Class Christopher M. Yaw says the team will work to get a "good, clean sample" of the unknown substance that appears to be leaking from the barge so they can identify it.

From the Coast Guard's press release:

Marine Safety Unit Toledo deployed pollution responders with boat crews from Coast Guard Station Marblehead, Ohio, Friday, Saturday and Sunday. Crews reported smelling a strong odor of a solvent on Friday and Saturday.

An initial overflight was conducted by a Coast Guard Air Station Detroit aircrew on Saturday, with MSU Toledo pollution responders aboard, who reported observing a 400 yard discoloration on the water near the site. A second overflight on Sunday morning was unable to locate any discoloration.

Original post - Saturday, October 24, 9 p.m.:

The Coast Guard is initiating an emergency response to a leak from a tank barge that’s at the bottom of Lake Erie.

The Cleveland Underwater Explorers (CLUE) discovered the wreck on August 28th. It’s believed to be a vessel called the Argo that sank in 1937. 

It's about 44 feet below the surface of the water.

The wreck site is 12 miles northeast of Sandusky in western Lake Erie.

Records show the barge was carrying more than 100,000 gallons of crude oil when it sank.

No one knows yet what exactly is still on board. But 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.

A dive team contracted by the U.S. Coast Guard inspects the wreck on Wednesday, October 21, 2015.
Credit Lieutenant Jennifer Disco / USCG

Anthony Migliorini is the commanding officer for the Coast Guard’s Marine Safety Unit in Toledo.  He says they don't know yet exactly what is leaking, or how much is leaking, but a Coast Guard helicopter flight Saturday indicated there’s an area of discoloration in the water that’s 400 yards by 20 yards.

Migliorini says it appears to be some kind of solvent, and they're working to identify the product. He says the Coast Guard is monitoring the site by air and mobilizing an emergency response team now.

“We’ll have the responders on scene on Monday. Their primary goal will be to identify the source of the leak and secure it.”

He says the response team will take safety precautions, and the Coast Guard is establishing a restricted zone around the wreck. They're asking boaters to stay 1,000 feet away from the site. But he says there’s no immediate risk to human health outside of the response zone.

The first sign of a leak

Christopher Gillcrist is the executive director of the National Museum of the Great Lakes. His organization funds the shipwreck search team CLUE on its missions in Lake Erie. He says he sent a CLUE dive team out on Friday to measure the wreck, and that was when the divers noticed an odor in the air above the wreck site and observed what they described as a small amount of petroleum product in the water.

"They described it as kind of an oily, solvent, chemical smell. Not something you'd classify as outright fuel," he says. "It is by no means a continuous discharge. Think of a little globule floating to the surface."

Gillcrist says they immediately reported that finding to the Coast Guard. The Coast Guard then sent out a team to investigate.

Gillcrist says they're certain the wreck is the Argo - he says measurements the dive team took on Friday match the dimensions listed in the historical record. The Coast Guard's Migliorini says there's a "considerable amount of evidence" to support that.

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

In 2013, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration published a risk assessment of what the agency considers the 87 most potentially hazardous shipwrecks in U.S. waters.

The Argo made the top of the list for the five shipwrecks in the Great Lakes that are considered the highest pollution risk. That's for a couple of reasons: the Argo sank in a storm, and is still intact, and also because of her cargo.

Lisa Symons is the damage assessment and resource protection coordinator for NOAA's Office of National Marine Sanctuaries. She wrote the risk assessment.

She says the barge's records indicate it was carrying 197,000 total gallons of two petroleum products: a product called benzol, and crude oil.

"Our assumption is that it was half benzol and half crude oil but we have no way of knowing for sure," she says.

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 get out of the wreck more easily."

Symons says there are some discrepancies in the historical record as to how much oil might've been on board, but she says the barge had just been loaded not long before it sank. The big question now is: how much of that oil is still on board?

*This post has been updated.