Sunken tug raises questions

HOUGHTON – An empty fishing tug has sunk through the spring ice at the pier at Keweenaw Entry Park, near the South Entry to the Portage Waterway. Environmental damage appears to be limited, and the Coast Guard and the boat’s owner have taken action to prevent further damage.

“We were notified April 7 that the vessel had sunk and deployed a pollution response team to the scene,” said Lt. Bill Fitzgerald of Coast Guard Station Duluth. “They found a small sheen, no more than one gallon of oil on the surface. The owner was contacted, came on the scene, and took some initial actions deploying an oil boom.”

The Coast Guard would not release the name of the boat’s owner. Michigan Department of Natural Resources enforcement officer Lt. Peter Wright said the DNR has no jurisdiction in the matter as the boat was licensed through the sovereign Keweenaw Bay Indian Community. Representatives of the KBIC Natural Resources Department did not return several calls Monday and today.

Fitzgerald said the boat’s owner paid for divers to seal the boat’s oil vents to prevent further leaks and is monitoring the situation until the boat can be lifted from the water. He said that will have to wait until road conditions leading to the pier are suitable for bringing in heavy equipment, or the ice has receded enough for a barge with a crane to be brought in.

“Because the oil is secure and there’s no new sheen, we can hold off on lifting the vessel,” he said.

Fitzgerald said it was possible that some oil could have spread farther from the boat underneath the ice, but that there was no indication of that so far.

He said cleaning fluids, batteries and other oil sources on the boat could be concerns, but that the boat’s diesel tanks, which seem to be sealed adequately, were the largest concerns.

“It’s unlikely any would have leaked out of the engine,” he said.

The Coast Guard will not consider possible enforcement actions until the cleanup is complete, Fitzgerald said, with the owner’s cooperation in the cleanup a major factor in what might be considered.

“At this point, we’re not considering criminal (penalties),” he said, noting that civil actions could range anywhere from a letter of warning to a significant fine.

“It depends on how much the owner spent on cleanup, their cooperation with us, how much oil was released and why the spill occurred,” he said.

Fitzgerald said the owner had purchased the boat fairly recently and had done some work to winterize the boat. Prior to sinking, he said the boat was legal as far as the Coast Guard was concerned, but that the Guard doesn’t inspect commercial fishing boats.

Chassell resident Jim Manderfield said he noticed the boat listing badly and took a picture when he passed the pier headed out ice fishing March 25, about two weeks before it sank.

“When the ice was really good it was holding it up,” Manderfield hypothesized. “Seems the first time we had a warm spell, it went down.”

The next time he returned to the area, “there was just a bunch of junk on the top, and it stinks of oil pretty bad,” he said. “It did kind of concern us, because it’s such a pristine area down there.”

Fitzgerald said it’s important boat owners monitor vessels left in the water throughout the winter. If they find oil leaks or situations where a boat is in danger, owners are legally required to call the Coast Guard’s national response line at 800-424-8802. The USCG would work with boat owners to come up with a plan to correct the situation, he said.

Members of the public who notice environmental hazards or boats in distress should also call the response line, he added.