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Argo shipwreck find leaking petroleum

KELLEYS ISLAND — It wasn’t qualified to operate in the Great Lakes’ open waters, and when it did, the barge Argo was caught in a gale, capsized, and sank.

Laden with as much as 200,000 gallons of petroleum, the 120-foot vessel was missing in Lake Erie for nearly 78 years before a shipwreck hunter from Lakeside, Ohio, found it two months ago.

And the Argo apparently is leaking. It is a slow leak, and possibly an intermittent one.

But the Coast Guard on Saturday confirmed an observation by Tom Kowalczk, who discovered the Argo on Aug. 28, that an unknown, solvent-like substance was bubbling up to the water’s surface above the barge, then quickly evaporating.

The Coast Guard has set up a “regulatory safety zone” with a 1,000-foot radius around the Argo’s location, meaning boats are not to enter that area. While not marked with buoys, a Coast Guard official said during a news conference Sunday morning the safety zone’s coordinates are broadcast continuously over marine radio.

“We highly recommend to boaters that they stay as far out of that area as possible,” Lt. Cmdr. Paul Migliorini, commander of the Coast Guard’s Marine Safety Office Toledo, said during the news conference at the National Museum of the Great Lakes.

Mr. Kowalczk, director of research and remote sensing of the Cleveland Underwater Explorers, found the barge about eight miles east of Kelleys Island, 12 miles northeast of Sandusky, and two miles south of the marine boundary between Canada and the United States.

The Coast Guard plans to send contractors to the wreck site today, and has summoned pollution-control experts to the area to assess the situation, Commander Migliorini said.

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Good teamwork

Christopher Gillcrist, executive director of the National Museum of the Great Lakes, said the Argo’s discovery is “a powerful example” of successful collaboration between the not-for-profit sector and government, as well as the latter’s ability to respond rapidly to the potential threat.

The museum has been providing grant funding to the Cleveland Underwater Explorers to reimburse some of that group’s operating expenses as it looks for Lake Erie shipwrecks.

Though he found it in August, it was only on Friday, during a dive to confirm the sunken vessel’s dimensions after a Coast Guard contractor’s divers earlier last week raised doubts about its identity, that Mr. Kowalczk observed the intermittent appearance of small, oily droplets on the water’s surface above the wreck.

Commander Migliorini said further investigation Saturday confirmed the apparent leak, including discoloration of the water visible from an aircraft as well as “an odor of a solvent-like smell.”

A helicopter survey of the area Sunday, he noted, failed to observe the same discoloration.

Commander Migliorini said the leak as currently observed poses no threat to drinking-water supplies drawn from Lake Erie or to aquatic life in the area.

Whatever the substance is that is surfacing, he said, it apparently evaporates before it harms anything, although he said the main reason for the exclusion zone is to avoid human exposure to the solvent-like fumes.

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Argo cargo

The Argo is believed to have been carrying about 100,000 gallons each of crude light oil and benzol, a tar-like material containing benzene and toluene, when the barge became distressed during a storm and was abandoned by the tug towing it.

Crude light oil, Commander Migliorini said, was a broad term used at the time to cover numerous petroleum-derived materials, not just oil straight from the ground.

In a telephone interview, Lisa Symons, resource protection coordinator for the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration’s Office of National Marine Sanctuaries, said that in this case, “crude light oil” was probably an oil product derived from the process of coking coal at a steel mill in Sault Ste. Marie, Ont., which is where the Argo’s records showed it was loaded.

Benzol also was a byproduct of coking, Ms. Symons said.

The barge was towed by a heavy tug through the New York State Barge Canal to reach Lake Ontario, and was to return through New York to deliver its cargo to a refinery in northern New Jersey, according to Jim Paskert, the Cleveland Underwater Explorers’ director of archival research.

Crew testimony revealed the barge “was not designed, built, or licensed to operate anywhere other than in the harbors, rivers, and canals between New York City or Boston,” Mr. Paskert said.

When loaded as fully as it was on its Great Lakes voyage, he said, its deck was just 2 1/2 feet above the water line, making it vulnerable to being overwashed by large waves of the very sort that arose during the Lake Erie gale on the night of Oct. 19-20, 1937.

According to investigative records Mr. Kowalczk cited, the Argo’s two crewmen reported being struck by a series of waves, the last of which flipped the barge onto its side.

Once that happened, he said, there was no chance of recovery because air in the tanks would have shifted to the top.

The crew aboard the tug saw lights on the barge extinguish and circled back to determine what was going on at the end of 900 feet of tow line. When they found the barge on its side, Mr. Kowalczk said, they disconnected the tow line but also threw lifelines to the barge’s two crew to rescue them.

No action was taken against the crew for operating the improperly licensed barge in the Great Lakes, Mr. Paskert said, but the vessel’s owners were “cited for violations” associated with the voyage.

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Suspected threat

Early this decade, the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration listed the Argo among 89 shipwrecks believed to pose a significant environmental threat to United States waters because of their cargoes or fueling systems.

Five of those vessels were lost in the Great Lakes and, of them, the Argo was deemed potentially most dangerous because of the size and unknown status of its cargo.

But of the five, it was the only one that had never been located. A NOAA assessment of the Argo, prepared in 2013, said its most likely position was in Canadian waters southeast of Pelee Island, but close enough to American waters that any discharge posed a hazard on both sides of that maritime border.

Mr. Kowalczk said he found what appeared to be the Argo while looking for a shipwreck from the 1840s that was believed to have gone down in the region east of Kelleys Island.

Using side-scan sonar, a technology that allows the lake bed to be surveyed for about 200 yards in either direction from a surface vessel, Mr. Kowalczk observed an object on the bottom that clearly did not belong there.

The shipwreck hunter said that once he took closer scans of it, it was pretty clear to him what he had found, because the Argo is the only tanker barge known to have sunk in Lake Erie and not been located.

“I knew that the Argo was sunk in that area, but it was supposed to be several miles north,” Mr. Kowalczk said.

The discovery was cast in some doubt Wednesday when a Coast Guard dive contractor measured the wreck and came up with dimensions significantly smaller than the Argo’s registered size.

That prompted Mr. Kowalczk to commission his own dive on Friday, and he said the results from that measurement matched, within about a foot for length and width, the Argo’s records.

The leaking material, Mr. Kowalczk said, only became obvious because his vessel stayed on station above the wreck for an extended time.

“Every once in a while, and randomly, we’d get a whiff of something,” he said.

Before long, his boat’s crew observed tiny bubbles of oil appearing on the surface, then rapidly dissipating.

“Ten to 15 seconds, and it was gone,” Mr. Kowalczk said, adding there had been occasional reports over the years of boaters smelling a similar odor in that area, but nothing was documented or confirmed.

Based on the NOAA assessment from the year before, the Coast Guard in 2014 conducted a tabletop exercise jointly with Canadian officials, simulating a response to a spill from the Argo, even though its location was unknown at the time, Commander Migliorini said.

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Solving problem

Now that the barge has been found and the leak detected, he said, that planning effort will be put to use.

TNT Marine Salvage of Roseville, Mich., has been hired to respond to the scene today, the commander said.

“The first thing will be to identify the source of the leak, then secure it the best they can,” he said. “The visibility in Lake Erie is very low, so it’s going to be challenging.”

Costs associated with the effort will be paid from the Oil Spill Liability Trust Fund, a pool into which oil transporters pay to address spill cleanups for which a responsible party can’t be identified.

It’s too soon to even estimate how much the barge cleanup will cost, Commander Migliorini said.

“That’s really going to depend on how it goes forward,” he said.

Mr. Gillcrist said if the state of Ohio or the federal government hired a “cultural resource management firm” to look for the wrecked barge, the effort might have cost taxpayers hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Also, such a firm probably would have been looking in the wrong place based on the inaccuracy in the casualty report.

As it was, he said, the Great Lakes museum uses grant money to reimburse CLUE volunteers for the fuel they use searching for shipwrecks, typically about $3,000 to $5,000 per year.

A comprehensive narrative of the Argo discovery will be published in a pending issue of the Great Lakes Historical Society’s quarterly journal, Inland Seas, the museum director said.

This article was written by David Patch from The Blade and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.