HELENA — Everyone seems to agree that a barge carrying a gold dredge below Canyon Ferry Dam that sank last week needs to be removed. It’s just not clear when the removal will take place.
Area resident Mike Reinig, who has lived near Canyon Ferry Dam for 25 years, said that neighbors began noticing the barge sinking about three weeks ago.
He said that he has become frustrated with the lack of action to remove it and is concerned that the barge could be leaking gasoline or antifreeze.
“I’ve watched these barges over the years and they’ve never been maintained properly,” Reinig said. “It was inevitable that this was going to happen. Why did they allow it to sink all the way?”
The Army Corps of Engineers issued a permit for the vessel to dredge for gold and sapphires in 2010. The barge is 16 feet wide and 30 feet long, and is permitted to operate in portions of Hauser Lake.
According to public records, the Department of Environmental Quality issued a discharge permit to Paragon Mining Inc. in 2009 for its dredging operation.
“We’ve been working with the responsible party (Paragon) to make sure this is removed. The water was pretty cold and requires divers,” DEQ communications director Chris Saeger said.
According to DEQ, Paragon told the agency that the barge came loose under high winds. The pontoons struck rocks below the surface of the water, causing the barge to sink.
Paragon told them all gasoline and antifreeze had been drained and removed from the barge before it sank. If this claim is true, contamination caused by the barge would be minimal, Saeger said.
A call to Paragon put the ownership in doubt. Mike Clifton of Paragon said that his company no longer owns the dredge and directed calls to its legal counsel.
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Earl Griffith, of Helena, then called and identified himself as the purchaser of the barge and dredge, but said the sale has not been completed. Griffith added that he and Paragon are currently in litigation over the purchase, but did not identify the reason for the litigation.
DEQ has not received a transfer of ownership notice from Paragon, Saeger said.
Ownership issues aside, Griffith said he plans to remove the barge as soon as conditions allow and before the dam releases water from spring runoff.
“I want to make sure it’s going to come out safely,” Griffith said. “Folks would like to have it out before water releases, which is appropriate. We’re working the best we can.”
Griffith said a diver had attempted to secure the vessel, but that cold water caused the diver to abandon the attempt.
“We concluded that the only reasonable way to get it out is with a crane,” he said.
Griffith said he’s currently looking at a way to get a crane to the site.
Todd Tillinger, Montana program manager for the Army Corps of Engineers, said they heard about the sinking barge last week, and decided to let DEQ and the owner handle its removal. Now that the barge has not been removed, Tillinger said the corps was going to the site on Friday to do an inspection.
The corps has powers under the Clean Water Act and the 1899 Rivers and Harbors Act to remove obstacles from navigable waters, he added.
“We’re going to figure out what we need to do is get it removed,” Tillinger said.