TRAVERSE CITY — The final fate of a motorboat that recently sank in West Grand Traverse Bay remains unknown.
State authorities said the vessel needs to be salvaged from the bottomlands of Lake Michigan or fines may be assessed, while federal military officials said it’s unclear whether recovery will be even required because of where the 30-foot cruiser went down.
However, authorities said a decision on an action plan is forthcoming.
Officials with the U.S. Coast Guard reported the boat rests on the lake floor approximately 178 feet down. The vessel can hold as much as 75 gallons of fuel and is believed to have 70 gallons onboard, officials said.
“The good news is we don’t have any reported pollution coming from the boat,” said Lt. Barton S. Nanney, public affairs officer for the Coast Guard’s 9th District, which covers the Great Lakes.
State environmental regulators argue the boat must be removed from the bay.
“Sunken vessels are required to be removed from the water just like any other debris,” said Nick Assendelft, public information officer with the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy.
He also said the state agency supports local authorities in urging owners to remove material from the water as soon as possible. If that doesn’t happen, it can come with legal and financial consequences, he said.
“If progress is not made we can work with those same authorities on possible legal remedies to compel an owner to remove the debris,” Assendelft said.
He also said potential fines for the boat’s owner could be calculated at least partially based on any pollution that happens to the bay and costs associated with all required cleanup efforts.
Coast Guard officials declined to release information about the boat’s owner. The Record-Eagle filed a Freedom of Information Act request to seek those details, as well as reports about the helicopter rescue mission to save 10 people from the chilly waters as the boat sank June 19 under clear, sunny skies.
In the meantime, federal authorities are investigating whether and how the boat should be pulled from the depths of the bay.
Nanney said because of the reported depth and the amount of potential gasoline onboard, Coast Guard pollution experts have yet to figure out the best method to salvage the wreck. The situation would require expensive, specialized equipment and the depth comes with increased risk to those involved, he said.
“How can it be done and what’s the best way overall,” Nanney said.
There are concerns about the potential pollution from any spilled gasoline, he said, as well as navigating the balancing act among Coast Guard, state and local authorities and associated varying legal precedents.
“And obviously, somebody has to pay for it,” Nanney said.
The lieutenant said an action plan will be developed and is expected to be announced next week. The plan will be developed in consideration of the risk of a gasoline spill if and when the vessel is moved, he said.
Local resident and avid diver Chris Roxburgh said he plans to dive on the wreck as soon as this weekend, eager to inspect the sunken vessel and take photographs of the underwater site. His diving partner checked it out Friday.
“I want to get it out of the bay to stop the pollution it will cause,” Roxburgh said.
No injuries were reported in the incident, and the cause of the boat’s sinking remains unknown.
That’s why Coast Guard officials underscored the importance of being properly prepared for boat outings, particularly early in the season when Great Lakes waters are still cold.
“As the boating season begins, it is important to ensure your vessel is ready to safely get underway,” said Coast Guard Commander Amy Florentino, deputy sector commander.
She said boaters should conduct a check of their vessel, make sure safety gear is onboard including life jackets, and ensure and functioning VHF radio is available.
“In this case, the mariner was able to use a VHF radio to communicate to us that they needed help, which allowed the Coast Guard and other boaters to get on scene quickly,” Florentino said in a released statement.