PESHAWBESTOWN — The owner of a barge that sunk in West Grand Traverse Bay last year, did not have permission from tribal leaders to dock it at a boat launch on tribal land, and state officials said the owner will face criminal charges if the vessel sinks again.
“We have suspended at this point any further enforcement action against Mr. Balcom since the barge is no longer on state bottomlands,” said Nick Assendelft, of the state’s Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy. “He reportedly is fixing the hole and then will tow the barge to Northport. We have warned him that if the barge sinks again he will face immediate charges.”
Grand Traverse Band of Ottawa and Chippewa Indians owns the Arthur Duhamel Marina, where the barge was blocking the sole boat launch until Thursday. Tribal council Chairman David Arroyo said Thursday the government’s staff gave no permission to place the barge there.
“We were informed in the morning that a tribal fisherman towed the vessel there,” he said. “I haven’t talked to this individual personally to have that confirmed, but that’s what staff conveyed to us.”
The barge was tied up in a slip just north of the boat ramp early Thursday afternoon, not far from several fishing vessels tied up at other slips and a loading dock.
Donald Balcom, who owns the barge through his company Balcom Marine Contracting, said the barge was “gone now, and they’re happy” when asked about it being in the marina’s boat ramp, but declined to say more.
“Everybody else on TV is badmouthing me for something I never did, and nobody gives me any credit for getting the damn thing floating,” he said before ending the call.
Arroyo said it was a relief to have the barge off the boat ramp. He was still awaiting a final report but believes whoever towed it there, did so late Tuesday or early Wednesday. Blocking the only launch ramp meant anyone looking to launch vessels — other fishing boats, the tribe’s Department of Natural Resources or emergency responders, for example — were blocked there.
Cindi John, who along with husband Ed runs Treaty Fishing Company out of the marina, said she was sympathetic to the barge owner’s situation and hopes he can get it resolved — their boat wasn’t blocked, Ed said. But the barge being there in the boat ramp caught people by surprise, and Cindi thought communications could’ve been handled better.
State environmental regulators had set a May 27 deadline for Balcom to remove the barge and its attached crane from state bottomlands.
The vessel sunk in late November during windy conditions while anchored in the bay south of the Elmwood Township Marina and state officials said they set a generous deadline for its removal after taking cold weather and water temperatures into account.
Balcom previously said the barge and crane sinking in the bay was an accident, and that he was working to meet the state deadline to surface the equipment.
In March U.S. Coast Guard officials warned divers hired by Balcom to halt their efforts until weather conditions changed and the goal became safer to achieve, as previously reported.
Prior to that, the U.S. Coast Guard worked to remove all oils and fuel from the sunken vessel and crane to prevent any continued pollution into Lake Michigan, Assendelft said.
Petty Officer Greg Schell, from Coast Guard’s Ninth District, previously confirmed the agency hired a contractor to remove the petrochemical liquids from the vessel and crane in early December, along with cleaning up the materials that had already leaked into the bay.
Balcom previously criticized state officials for threatening fines and criminal charges in the violation notice he received about the deadline, as previously reported. He told a Record-Eagle reporter at the time that he was not polluting and had lost two customers because of the notice.
Another Balcom Marine vessel sunk over Labor Day weekend in 2019. The company’s tugboat sank in Paradesia Bay north of Northport, as previously reported.
The tug was towed into the Northport Boat Yard and has been stored there since, according to a company spokesperson in December.