This 1930s Shipwreck May Be Leaking Oil into Lake Erie

  • Shipwreck hunter Tom Kowalczk discovered this tank barge on the bottom of Lake Erie on August 28, 2015. It's believed to be the wreck of the Argo, which sank in a storm in 1937. Photo courtesy Tom Kowalczk / Cleveland Underwater Explorers

October 30, 2015

There’s a 78-year-old shipwreck in western Lake Erie that might have thousands of gallons of oil still on board—and it appears to be leaking. The Coast Guard is investigating the shipwreck, which is believed to be the Argo—a tank barge which sank in a storm in 1937.

Records show it was carrying about 100,000 gallons of crude oil when it sank. But 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. The Coast Guard later confirmed the leak. That triggered an emergency response, though the Coast Guard says there’s no immediate risk to human health.

“Whether or not they're successful in identifying the leak depends on whether the leak is still active,” says Lieutenant Greg Scweitzer of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. “If it's not, it'll probably be very difficult for the divers to determine where that source is.”

One challenge: The wreck is covered in zebra mussels. That makes it hard to tell if there are cracks in the hull.

The Search for the Argo

The Argo was already on a list of hazardous shipwrecks, but no one knew exactly where it was. Amateur shipwreck hunter Tom Kowalczk first discovered the underwater wreck in August. For the past 40 years, he’s spent his weekends looking for shipwrecks.

For today’s trip out to the Lake Erie wreck site, he dials up the GPS coordinates and pulls away from the marina in Lakeside, Ohio. About an hour away from shore, he flips on the depth finder and points out a big peak that pops up on the screen.

“There it is right there,” Kowalczk says. “We just went over top of the wreck.”

Shipwreck hunter Tom Kowalczk discovered what he believes to be the wreck of the Argo while looking for a different shipwreck in Lake Erie. He's been hunting shipwrecks for more than 40 years. Photo: Rebecca Williams / Michigan Radio

Shipwreck hunter Tom Kowalczk discovered what he believes to be the wreck of the Argo while looking for a different shipwreck in Lake Erie. He's been hunting shipwrecks for more than 40 years. Photo: Rebecca Williams / Michigan Radio

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 (were) 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 using a sonar device to look for a different shipwreck—a wooden sailing ship called the Lexington. Instead, he found 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—five or six miles north—of where we are right now,” he says. “When it showed up on the screen, I was really surprised because I wasn’t expecting to see anything here.”

A Potentially Toxic Wreck

Locating the Argo is more than just a thrill for shipwreck hunters.

In 2013, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration published a risk assessment of shipwrecks that could be pollution hazards. It identified the Argo as the biggest pollution threat from a shipwreck in the Great Lakes. The barge's records indicate it was carrying close to 200,000 gallons of two petroleum products: crude oil and a product called benzol.

"Our assumption is that it was half and half cargo but we have no way of knowing for sure,” says Lisa Symons, who wrote the risk assessment.

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," 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.

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Rebecca Williams is a reporter for Michigan Radio and producer of the Environment Report.