Salvage crews plan to pump hazardous oil substance from sunken barge at bottom of Lake Erie

TOLEDO, Ohio – Salvage crews are preparing for an underwater operation to pump a hazardous oil-based substance from a sunken barge that apparently had been sitting undiscovered on the bottom of Lake Erie for nearly 80 years.

The crews expect to start assembling the pumps near the end of the week before they can begin moving the cargo to a barge on the surface.

How fast that happens will depend a lot on conditions on the lake, which can be rough in November, said Thomas McKenzie, a spokesman for the project being overseen by the U.S. Coast Guard and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Crews have been monitoring the site near the U.S.-Canadian border since discovering a small leak in October that appeared to coming from a barge called the Argo that sank during a storm in 1937. The wreckage is one of 87 shipwrecks on a federal registry that identifies the most serious pollution threats to U.S. waters.

A shipwreck hunter spotted the barge 45 feet below the lake’s surface in late August.

The process of removing oil from sunken ships is commonly used and safe, McKenzie said Tuesday.

Crews will drill into the tank and pump lake water inside, pushing the benzol into pipes that will carry it to another barge, he said. The lake water will help maintain a constant pressure inside the tank and stop it from potentially rupturing.

There are seven other tanks on the barge that will need to be evaluated and possibly drained, McKenzie said. Historical documents have said the Argo was transporting both benzol and crude oil when it went down.

“We have a general idea of what the Argo was carrying, but it has to be a step-by-step process of checking each of the tanks as we go,” he said.

The Coast Guard has been keeping boaters away from the area because of fumes in the air.