Everything You Need To Know About The Abandoned Barge Floating Off The Shores Of Northport
By Craig Manning | May 12, 2023
Who has the authority to demand that the owner of a nuisance marine vessel haul it out of the water? That’s a question that has gained significant traction in and beyond Leelanau County in recent weeks, thanks to the lingering presence of a derelict barge that has been sitting abandoned off the shores of Northport for the better part of two years.
While the barge is currently floating, it had previously sunk beneath shallow depths in Northport Bay – prompting concerns among locals that it might leak oil, gasoline, or other contaminants into nearby waters. While the owner of the barge has pledged to remove and repair it, nearby homeowners say there has yet to be any true attempt to retrieve the vessel. And to make matters more complicated, even some government offices say they don’t have the jurisdiction to demand that the barge be extracted from the water before it sinks again.
The barge in question already has a sordid history in northern Michigan, dating back before the current controversy. In November 2020, the barge sank near Greilickville. In that case, both the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy (EGLE) and the United States Coast Guard got involved. According to a press release from the time, the Coast Guard “immediately assessed the sunken vessel for the possible release of fuel and hired a contractor to clean up any polluting liquids,” with the contractor pumping “all the fuel from the barge and crane” in December of that year.
Per contemporaneous reporting from the Traverse City Ticker (a Leelanau Ticker sister publication), the barge situation prompted EGLE to hit Balcom Marine Contractors with two violation notices – first in December 2020 and again in March 2021 – citing the business “for violating the Natural Resources and Environmental Protection Act by allowing pollutants to enter Grand Traverse Bay and not removing the barge from state bottomlands.” EGLE gave Balcom Marine a deadline of May 27, 2021 to remove the barge, noting that the owner could be subject to criminal investigation and charges if the deadline wasn’t met.
According to MLive, which did its own investigation of the barge saga last week, Balcom Marine ultimately re-floated the barge in May of 2021 and moved it to a boat ramp in Peshawbestown, owned by the Grand Traverse Band of Ottawa and Chippewa Indians. But MLive reporter Sheri McWhirter writes that the barge was only there “for about a week” before Balcom Marine hauled it up the coast to a new site in Northport. By July, the barge was “anchored offshore near a gated resort community” in the Northport area, where it has remained ever since.
Though initially floating on anchor, the barge sank again – or, more accurately, struck the bottom of Northport Bay due to dipping water levels – in January 2022. It ended up just stone’s throw from the beach and dock of Bill and Amy Lanzit, who say they have been trying ever since to get it removed.
Eventually, the Lanzits got connected with Detective Holly Pennoni from the Michigan Department of Natural Resources (DNR), who investigated the situation. On November 15, 2022, Pennoni placed a note on the barge informing Balcom that, per the DNR’s investigation, the barge was “considered abandoned” and was “causing interference with the riparian rights subject to public trust including access to navigable waters, dockage to boatable waters, and use of water for general purposes such as bathing and domestic use.” Vessel abandonment, Pennoni wrote, constitutes a violation of the Natural Resources and Environmental Protection Act. The detective concluded that the DNR “may take the barge into custody…if it is not removed within 48 hours of receiving this letter.” But those 48 hours passed with no action, and the DNR has never made any move to seize the barge.
“They don’t have any money to move this thing,” theorizes Bill Lanzit. “There’s no funding. So that letter essentially had no teeth.”
Balcom could not be reached for comment for this article, but he has argued to other media that he needed higher water levels to get the barge floating again before he could remove it. To MLive, Balcom contended that attempting to drag the barge into deeper waters could pose threats to aquatic habitats and trigger possible violations of state bottomlands law. Similarly, Balcom told UpNorthLive in December that he was waiting for springtime and higher water levels to get the barge floating again, and would tow it out as soon as seasonal shifts and high water allowed.
Because of those remarks, Lanzit hoped the saga was finally nearing its conclusion late last month, when crews from Team Elmer’s set to work getting the barge into deeper water. As of April 24, Elmer’s had the vessel floating once more. Two and a half weeks later, though, the barge is still there, and Lanzit says there has yet to be any effort by Balcom to haul the vessel away. Earlier this week, Lanzit adds, it even looked like the barge was starting to sink again.
Lanzit’s question at this point is about who can compel Balcom to remove the barge. Locally, he's spoken with both Leelanau County Sheriff Mike Borkovich and Chief Assistant Prosecutor Doug Donaldson, both of whom told him there was nothing they could do.
As for EGLE, Public Information Officer Jeff Johnston tells The Leelanau Ticker that the office’s authority only extends so far in situations like this one. Per Johnson, it was under an agreement with EGLE that Balcom Marine Contractors hired Team Elmer’s and “refloated and moved the barge from where it had grounded and partially sank near shore last fall.”
“EGLE was able to compel the owner to move the vessel because at the time it rested on Great Lakes bottomlands, over which EGLE holds regulatory authority,” Johnston explains. “After being refloated, the barge reportedly has remained in the vicinity but no longer resting on the lake bottom.”
In other words, if the vessel were to sink again, it would be back in EGLE’s jurisdiction. With things being as they are, though, EGLE has no remaining authority to make Balcom remove the barge.
“While EGLE understands the frustration of nearby residents and others concerned about the barge’s presence, the department’s regulatory authority does not extend to vessels afloat or at anchor,” Johnston concludes. “EGLE will continue to monitor the situation and work with other agencies as appropriate to address concerns or complaints. EGLE also is interested in working with the legislature toward possible changes to Michigan law regarding situations such as this one, although there are no specific proposals at this time.”
Lanzit has been told that the office of Attorney General Dana Nessel “has the case, with intent to possibly file charges,” but says he’s not optimistic there will be any progress.
“It’s been three months since we were told that,” Lanzit says of the attorney general possibility. “How long does it take?”
Pictured: A shot of the barge from spring 2021, when it was partially submerged near Greilickville (Credit: Chris Roxburgh)Comment
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