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Sunken Lake Champlain Tugboat: Small Amount Of Oil Found By Commercial Divers

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SUNKEN LAKE CHAMPLAIN TUG
A support tug is alongside a diving barge on Lake Champlain, Wednesday, Sept. 21, 2011. Divers are exploring the wreck of the tugboat that sank decades ago in Lake Champlain to determine if there's any fuel remaining in its tanks. (AP Photo/Brian Witte) | AP

MONTPELIER, Vt. -- Environmental officials feared the worst: Was a long-sunken tugboat a looming environmental disaster?

For the past week, commercial divers braved the dark, cold depths of Lake Champlain to try to find out just what the tugboat wreck held. Was it the 14,000 gallons of diesel fuel that represented the worst-case scenario?

The answers were revealed Tuesday: The tug's tanks contained no diesel fuel at all, though a small amount of lubricating oil was found trapped within the wreck's high spots.

Buckley McAllister, vice president of the company that paid for much of the effort, seemed chagrined.

"In the process of this project, I estimate that we burned tens of thousands of gallons of fuel. ... There were no reported injuries. We are relieved that the project was completed safely," he said.

The tugboat, the William H. McAllister, sank in 1963 and represents the last significant commercial shipwreck on the 120-mile lake between Vermont and upstate New York. It sat on the bottom unmolested for decades, but concern grew after an oil sheen was discovered above the wreck site in 1997.

Working tugs used about 800 gallons of fuel a day and the EPA had been concerned that the McAllister's four fuel tanks could still be holding thousands of gallons of diesel, said Alan Humphrey, the EPA official who oversaw recent expeditions to the tug. If that much fuel were lurking underwater and if the tanks ruptured, the diesel could hurt wildlife, mar the lake's shoreline and ruin recreation.

Concerns about that threat were revived a few years ago after the EPA's Paul Kahn learned about the wreck. He set the process in motion that ended with the dives to the McAllister, which sits in about 165 feet of water.

Over the last week, divers for a contractor hired by McAllister, Towing and Transportation made 13 deep-water trips to the sunken tug. On Monday, officials concluded there was no fuel at all in the tanks.

Lighter-than-water oil products were found stuck in high places or under overhangs within the wreck. The EPA estimated it was 200 gallons of an oil-water mix, but Buckley McAllister said it represented only about 2 gallons of lubricating oil. The oil was pumped to the surface and it will be disposed of.

"Our survey is comprehensive. We're confident that there aren't additional oil sources on board," Humphrey said.

The dives were paid for by McAllister, Towing and Transportation, the successor of the company that was operating the tug when it sank.

Humphrey did not know how much public money was spent on the project. McAllister said it cost his company more than $200,000 – more than $100,000 per gallon of recovered lube oil, he noted.

The McAllister was headed back to southern New York after delivering a load of aviation fuel to the now-closed Plattsburgh Air Force Base on Nov. 17, 1963, when it struck Schulyer Reef. The eight-man crew climbed onto the barge and drifted to shore. There were no injuries.

Humphrey said officials probably will never know how much diesel fuel "was lost in the first 12 hours of the sinking versus how much may have been lost during a period of years."

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