The Great Milwaukee Oil Spill of 1975: When 60,000 Gallons Were Dumped in Milwaukee Bay

Jul. 24, 2017
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The tugboat James Hannah, which lost control of an oil barge in 1975, leading to one of the biggest oil spills in Great Lakes history

There has been a lot of pollution dumped into Lake Michigan over the years, but one surprising such incident occurred in 1975, when one of the worst oil spills to ever occur on the Great Lakes fouled a huge stretch of water just off the shores of Milwaukee.

It was late February when the ten man crew of the 150-foot tug James Hannah set out from Chicago, towing a barge carrying over 600,000 gallons of heavy fuel oil. The weather forecast for their arrival in Milwaukee, where they would deliver the oil to the Atlantic Richfield Oil Company docks on the city’s inner harbor, was not great. But the tug’s captain, Richard Marone, had been working on the lakes since the age of 15 and the tug, which had been used during WWII to help crippled war ships back to port, was one of the sturdiest on the lake. They reported no trouble until they began to approach Milwaukee Bay, around 10 pm on the evening of February 23.

As they neared the main gap in the breakwater wall, tremendous winds kicked up and swell of the lake neared eight feet. With visibility minimal, the tug inched towards the space between the channel markers. The tug was pulling the barge with a Y rig, a 2,000 foot two-inch-thick steel cable that linked the tug and barge and a pair of 60 foot cables run between the corners of the barge and the main line. As the tug turned sharp into a wave, one of the ancillary cables snapped. Captain Marone immediately killed the engines, to avoid ruining the props with a wayward wire. Idling, but still rolling badly in the treacherous seas, the barge was thrown back from the tug, snapping the main cable and breaking completely free.

Radioing an emergency distress call to the Coast Guard, the tug had no visual contact with the barge, which was hidden within the stormy seas. For over an hour, the tug and the Coast Guard were able to keep track of the barge via radar. But as the seas worsened, the waves crashing over their boats confused the radar, blotting out the barge’s location. Now in grave danger of being struck by the 264 x 52 foot barge, the boats retreated to land. Twice the tug went back out in search of the barge, but twice the weather forced them back.

The Coast Guard couldn’t locate the barge until the next morning. It was found up against the jagged rocks of the breakwall, a large slick of oil surrounding it. Inspecting the vessel, it was determined that three of the five main tanks of the barge had ruptured and waves crashing over its decks had washed some of the oil into the lake. The barge could not be moved until it was determined to be structurally secure, so it was pinned to the wall by a tug and given a thorough inspection.   

Atlantic Richfield, owners of the oil itself, at first claimed that only about 5,000 gallons had been spilled. Within days, this estimate had jumped to 12,000. When the Coast Guard issued their findings, they determined that nearly 60,000 gallons had been spilled. Luckily for Milwaukee, the weather had pushed most of the oil out into the open lake. A survey of the lake from the air a few days after the spill found a slick of oil three miles wide by a mile long, about 22 miles off of the shoreline.

The oil that did make it into the harbor was driven towards the shore by boats equipped with water cannons, where it was drawn up by suction trucks. The Coast Guard went on “duck patrol” during the cleanup, using propane guns and noisemakers to keep wildlife away from the slicks. With cleanup crews working the lakefront from McKinley Beach down to the South Shore, nearly 21,000 gallons of oil were taken from the lake. The rest was left to dissipate on its own. The cleanup efforts were declared completed after seven days.

The Hannah Inland Waterway Corporation, owners and operators of the tug and barge, were required to pay the cleanup costs. It was noted in the days following the wreck that they could also be subject to fines of up to $5,000 for any negligence in the accident. The Coast Guard later cleared them of any wrongdoing. 

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