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Abandoned boats in Michigan lakes pose environmental hazards if not removed

Partially sunken abandoned boat in waterOver the past two decades, Vence Woods has seen a steady increase in the number of sunken, abandoned boats in Michigan lakes. Woods, a first lieutenant with the State's Environmental Investigation (EIS) Section says that's a growing environmental problem.  (EIS is a joint effort between the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy (EGLE) and the Michigan Department of Natural Resources (DNR).)

The submerged boats are foreign materials in waters, their fuels and oil can be released into waters, and they can become navigational hazards. Most often, says Woods, vessels begin to deteriorate, break up, and pollute the waters. They can also cause injuries to recreational boaters and wildlife and pose a hazard to anglers' boats.

Woods says he's involved in at least five abandoned vessels a year that require EIS involvement. They have ranged from 18 to 80 feet long.

Because Michigan law does not specifically address the removal of sunken vessels (or other items such as ATVs, snowmobiles, planes, etc.), laws are applied that deal with placing structures on bottomlands or the release of substances into waters. Also problematic are the lack of laws that require the reporting the sunken vessel, a plan to remove it and a timeline for removal and penalties.

Two incidents come to Woods' mind.

In 2017, a 76-foot wooden vessel was being piloted from Florida to Traverse City. The owner bought the vessel in need of repair and fixed it himself and headed to Michigan. The vessel began taking on water near Ludington State Park and was ran aground in front of the park. Within days the vessel was destroyed by waves and the debris was scattered on the state park waterfront. The park spent in excess of $115,000 in the cleanup. The owner was prosecuted under a litter law and ordered to reimburse the state park and has failed to do so to date. The owner claimed no money or insurance and could not afford to have it removed before the breakup or pay for the clean-up.

In 2011, a Wisconsin man bought numerous old commercial vessels to start a business on the Great Lakes. One of his vessels, A 57-foot tug, sank at its anchoring in Duncan Bay near Cheboygan. The United States Coast Guard (USCG) paid to have the fluids removed. The man had two more vessels anchored in the area which ran aground and one of them caused a release of fuel. The case went to court and the vessels were forfeited to another owner. Two vessels were refloated and removed from Duncan Bay by the new owner, but he revoked his promise to remove all of them and the 57-foot tug remains on the bottom of Duncan Bay.

"Accidents do happen, and we want to work with individuals to safely remove the items however we also want to be sure every reasonable attempt to remove it from the water has been explored," notes Woods.

Sunken boats and other equipment should be reported to local police and called into EGLE's toll-free Pollution Emergency Alerting System at 800-292-4706.

Photo caption: Partially sunken, abandoned boat in water.

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