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A diver prepares to search the sunken tug, the William H. McAllister, on Lake Champlain on Wednesday. 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.
Photo: AP Photo

Divers explore sunken tug in Lake Champlain

LAKE CHAMPLAIN — Commercial divers are braving the dark, cold depths of Lake Champlain to try to establish whether a tugboat that sank a half-century ago is a lurking environmental hazard.

Federal officials and environmentalists worry that the William H. McAllister, which once hauled barges between Vermont and New York and was wrecked by a reef in 1963, could hold as much as 14,000 gallons of diesel fuel. Records have never been clear, and it’s unknown whether any fuel is still aboard the tug, which sits under 160 feet of water.

But the officials fear that the diesel fuel, if released, could hurt fish and wildlife.

It could take three days to determine if there’s fuel aboard, said Alan Humphrey, a member of a U.S. Environmental Protection Agency response team based in Edison, N.J., who is on hand for the effort. If fuel is found, it could take an additional week to remove it, Humphrey said.

The lake’s cold, fresh water would slow the degradation of the fuel tanks, he said.

The McAllister is in New York waters about five miles south of Port Kent, N.Y., and about eight miles west of Burlington. In 1997, an oil sheen was discovered on the water above it, and officials think the McAllister could have been the source.

Fuel has been recovered before from old shipwrecks. In 1974, a freighter ran aground in more than 200 feet off Massena, N.Y. An oil sheen was reported on the water in 2003, and the Coast Guard oversaw the removal of about 6,000 gallons of fuel from the vessel in the following year.

The first diver went down Wednesday afternoon to pinpoint the wreck. On Thursday, a diver from a Buffalo Industrial Diving Co. barge established a firm line to guide the next divers through the cold water and to create a way to send tools below. The next dive will clear sediment from the ship’s deck in order to locate the fuel tanks.

The diving hasn’t been easy. Visibility was disappointing Wednesday — less than 10 feet — Humphrey said, and the first diver reported a current.

Each diver is attached to an umbilical breathing system, which gets air from the surface. The diver, who brings an air tank along in case of emergency, wears a heavy neoprene suit with various tubes connected to a hot-water line on the surface to keep warm in 40-degree water temperatures. The barge above has two decompression chambers.

“You have a soft bottom. He’s walking or plowing through the bottom — cold water — he’s got heavy gear on, weight belt. Visibility is limited,” Humphrey said. “These are rigorous, hardworking dives.”

The McAllister is believed to be the last significant commercial vessel to sink in the lake. Adam Kane, the archaeological director for the Lake Champlain Maritime Museum who was on hand at the dive site Wednesday, said there are about 300 shipwrecks beneath the surface.

McAllister Towing and Transportation Co., of New York, hired the commercial diving contractor.

Last year, the EPA oversaw an expedition that sent a remotely operated dive vehicle to the wreck. The EPA had planned to send another expedition to the tug in late May, but it was delayed because of high water.

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