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Coast Guard begins emptying tanks from oil barge sunk in Lake Erie in 1937

By Keith Matheny • Updated Nov 27, 2015 at 3:30 PM

Still unsure of what exactly they are dealing with, U.S. Coast Guard-commissioned dive crews have begun removing the contents of petroleum tanks aboard the Argo, an oil barge that sank in Lake Erie in 1937 that was found leaking by divers last month.

Crews with T&T Marine Salvage on Nov. 20 began tapping and offloading the contents of one of the Argo’s eight storage tanks.

“Just to take advantage of weather windows, we’ve been going 22 hours a day, into the night. That’s not typical,” said Jerry Popiel, incident management adviser for the Coast Guard’s 9th District, which includes the Great Lakes.

The product is being pumped into a specialized container on a work barge and will be run through a series of carbon filters to separate and remove flammable vapors from the product, Coast Guard officials said.

What exactly is in the barge isn’t entirely certain.

“They pulled samples (Monday), and those samples are going to be sent out to the lab, and it will take a couple of days to get the response,” Coast Guard Petty Officer 2C Jetta Disco said.

The Argo, a 120-by-34-foot New York harbor barge, was not approved for Great Lakes usage when it sank in high winds and large waves on Lake Erie in 1937. Limited records indicate the barge had taken on between 100,000 and 200,000 gallons of “benzoil” and other light crude oil products in Sault Ste. Marie.

It’s unclear whether the Argo’s contents have been slowly leaking for decades; if some, most or all of it leaked long ago, or if it largely remains intact inside the barge’s holds. While the potential volume of oil products involved wouldn’t cause an ecological calamity on the Great Lakes, the fact that odors are present at the water’s surface near the wreck could leave boaters in the area inhaling harmful, irritating vapors.

As a precautionary measure, the Coast Guard is maintaining a safety zone covering a 1-mile radius on the surface above the barge. Boats are not allowed to enter, transit through or anchor in the zone without the Coast Guard’s permission.

The whereabouts of the shipwreck were unknown for decades, but the Argo was found in August in about 50 feet of water about 3 nautical miles east of Kelleys Island, near Sandusky, Ohio, by divers with Cleveland Underwater Explorers, or CLUE, a nonprofit group that works to discover and explore Great Lakes shipwrecks. CLUE divers, in another dive on the wreck Oct. 23, noticed an intermittent, strong smell of solvent and discoloration at the surface above the wreck. A discolored area of water was also spotted on a subsequent Coast Guard overflight of the area.

A unified command between the Coast Guard and Ohio Environmental Protection Agency has been based in Toledo to “take all necessary actions to ensure the safety of the public and the environment” related to the Argo, Coast Guard officials said.

NOTE: The graphic accompanying this story is of the Lake Erie sunken tanker barge Argo and it depicts the cargo tank status as salvage operations continue. Historical records indicate that the barge is comprised of 14 spaces, eight of which are believed to contain product that is in the process of being removed, and six void spaces most likely used to keep the barge afloat. The first of Argo's eight tanks was tapped and offloaded last Saturday morning.

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