MARBLEHEAD, Ohio - A sunken oil barge at the bottom of Lake Erie may be leaking petroleum, and the race is on to plug the leak. Divers planned to examine the wreckage of the ship, Argo, Tuesday to pinpoint the source of the leak and develop a solution.
Cleveland Underwater Explorers, Inc. discovered Argo in 50 foot-deep water 12 miles offshore and just east of Kelleys Island in August, after the boat went undetected since sinking during a storm in 1937, Then, Friday, divers noticed the wreckage may be leaking oil when they smelled a solvent-like odor near the site.
U.S. Coast Guard crews then observed discoloration of the water surface over a 400 yard long area Saturday. Neither an odor nor discoloration have been observed since then, including during two Coast Guard overflights Sunday.
On Monday, a team from the U.S. Coast Guard took air quality samples from the area, which did not reveal any toxins. Tuesday, dive teams with T&T Marine Salvage are scheduled to examine the wreckage. Coast Guard officials said the liquid appeared to be a light petroleum that rises to the surface quickly and then evaporates. Lieutenant Commander Marvin Kimmel said the public should not be concerned, and marine life does not appear to be at risk.
"At this point, the only risk associated with the discharge reported Friday is the inhalation hazard for people who happen to be on scene," Kimmel said.
A safety zone with a perimeter of 1,000 feet from the shipwreck has been established, and boaters are not allowed in the area. Kimmel said there is no indication the oil has traveled outside that zone.
National Museum of the Great Lakes Executive Director Christopher Gillcrist said there are two running theories about how the leak originated. One is that the cargo occasionally shifts and "burps," releasing oil based on weather conditions and temperature. That may have been occurring for years. Another theory is that the weight of a thick coat of zebra mussels may have crushed some part of the vessel.