Protecting the Great Lakes After a Coal Ship Hits Ground in Lake Erie
The coal ship CSL Niagara got stuck in Lake Erie's soft, muddy bottom.
The coal ship CSL Niagara got stuck in Lake Erie's soft, muddy bottom at the entrance to Sandusky Bay in November 2013. (U.S. Coast Guard)
NOAA chart of Lake Erie.
Lake Erie has an average depth of 62 feet, but its western basin, where the CSL Niagara grounded, averages only 24 feet deep. (NOAA Chart)

JANUARY 15, 2014 -- In the course of a year, from October 2012 to October 2013, the Emergency Response Division of NOAA's Office of Response and Restoration responded to 138 oil spills, chemical accidents, and various other threats to coastal environments and communities.

Many of these responses required considerable time from the scientific team to estimate where spills might spread, analyze chemical hazards, and assess whether natural resources are at risk. Sometimes, however, we're called into some incidents that end well, with minimum help needed on our part and no oil spilled.

Last November, LCDR John Lomnicky received a call from the U.S. Coast Guard with an example of an accident that had the potential to be much worse. LCDR Lomnicky is our Scientific Support Coordinator for the Great Lakes region and is based in Cleveland, Ohio.

When Staying Grounded Is a Bad Thing

On November 17, just after 10:00 in the morning, the vessel master of the CSL Niagara reported to the U.S. Coast Guard that his ship had run aground while leaving Sandusky Bay through Moseley Channel to Lake Erie. Aboard the ship were 33,000 metric tons (36,376 U.S. tons) of coal, headed to Hamilton, Ontario, and about 193 metric tons of intermediate fuel oil (a blend of gasoil and heavy fuel oil) and marine diesel.

The concern in a situation like this would be that the grounded ship might leak oil. Its stern was stuck in the soft mud at the bottom of Lake Erie. At the time, the vessel master reported there were no injuries, flooding, or visible pollution.

This ship, the CSL Niagara, has a long history of transporting coal in Lake Erie. Launched in April of 1972 for Canada Steamship Lines, Ltd., the new ship was 730 feet long and even then was carrying coal to Hamilton, Ontario. During over 40 years of sailing in the Great Lakes, the Niagara has also carried cargos of grain, coke, stone, and iron ore.

Even though the vessel hadn't released any oil, the Coast Guard Marine Safety Unit, who had responders at the scene very shortly after the accident, put in a call to the Office of Response and Restoration's LCDR Lomnicky for scientific support. As a precaution, they requested that we model the trajectory of oil in a worst case scenario if 145 metric tons of intermediate fuel oil and 48 metric tons of diesel fuel were released all at once into the water. We also provided a prediction of when the lake's lower-than-usual water level would return to normal so a salvage team could refloat the stuck vessel. After gathering all of this information for the Coast Guard, LCDR Lomnicky continued to stand by for further requests.

In the hours that followed the ship's grounding, the winds grew stronger, hampering efforts to free the vessel. The wind was causing the water level in the lake to drop and NOAA's National Weather Service in Detroit predicted a 7.5 foot drop in levels for western Lake Erie. By 8:30 p.m., with 30 knot winds in two-to-three foot seas, the three tugboats contracted by the ship's owner to dislodge the CSL Niagara were making some progress. By midnight, however, with weather conditions worsening, salvage operations were suspended and scheduled to resume at first light.

But the next morning, November 18, the water level had dropped another two feet, and the three tugs still had had no luck freeing the stern of the Niagara from the lake bottom. The ship’s owner was now working on plans for lightering (removing the fuel) and containing any potentially spilled oil. Fortunately, there were still no reports of damage to the vessel or oil discharged into the water. The ship was just stuck.

By 4:00 that afternoon the water conditions had improved and another attempt to free the vessel was planned. Also, a combined tug-barge was en route should lightering become necessary.

Later that evening, shortly after 10:00, the ship was pulled free by two of the tugs and was back on its way early the next morning.

NOAA GIS map image of the grounding location of CSL Niagara.
The location where the CSL Niagara grounded in Lake Erie is indicated with a red diamond, along with a window of information and photo of the grounded ship. It is mapped in Great Lakes ERMA, NOAA's online mapping tool for coastal pollution cleanup, restoration, and response. (NOAA)

Keeping the Great Lakes Great

Lake Erie is the shallowest of the five Great Lakes, with an average depth of 62 feet. Yet its western basin, where this ship grounding occurred, has an average depth of only 24 feet. The lake is an important source of commerce for both the U.S and Canada, who depend on it for shipping, fishing, and hydroelectric power. These industries place environmental pressure on the lake’s ecosystems, which are also threatened by urban and agricultural runoff.

Happily, quick responders, sound information, and a break in the weather may have prevented this incident from becoming something much worse. A spill into Lake Erie could be devastating, especially considering its shallow waters, but this time, like many other times along the nation's coasts, an oil spill was avoided.

Didn't know that NOAA works in the Great Lakes? Nicknamed "the third coast," the Great Lakes are a major U.S. water body, with a shoreline that stretches longer than the East Coast and Gulf Coast combined. Learn more about the Great Lakes and NOAA's efforts there in this Great Lakes regional snapshot.