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Owner of twice-sunken barge bound over on felony pollution charges

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Owner of twice-sunken barge bound over on felony pollution charges

Dec 11, 2023 | 10:16 am ET
By Jon King
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Owner of twice-sunken barge bound over on felony pollution charges
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Lake Michigan | Laina G. Stebbins

The owner of a barge that has twice sunk in Lake Michigan was bound over Friday on multiple charges, including trespassing and felony water pollution.

Owner of twice-sunken barge bound over on felony pollution charges
Dana Nessel | Ken Coleman

Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel originally announced the charges by her department’s environmental crimes unit in June against Donald Lewis Balcom, 88, of Traverse City. She said it followed “years of efforts” by the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy (EGLE) to work with Balcom toward a resolution of the issue of the sunken industrial barge and the contamination its alleged to have caused to Grand Traverse Bay on the northeastern coast of Lake Michigan. 

“I relaunched the environmental crimes unit to fully harness our criminal prosecuting authority in defense of the State’s natural resources,” said Nessel. “My Department is committed to protecting the Great Lakes whenever they come under threat, and this relaunched Unit serves that promise. The alleged pollution and trespass, or treating the Grand Traverse Bay as a dumping ground for abandoned vessels, are criminal offenses against the Great Lakes which are central to both our way of life in Michigan and the livelihoods of many of our residents.” 

Balcom, the owner of Balcom Marine Contractors, is alleged to have first illegally sunk the barge in 2020 on Lake Michigan bottomlands near Greilickville where it released oil into the waters of Lake Michigan. In May 2021, after being ordered by EGLE and the U.S. Coast Guard to move the barge, Balcom had it towed to a new location in Grand Traverse Bay just off the shore in Northport. 

According to a release from Nessel’s office, the barge sank for a second time on Lake Michigan bottomlands approximately 20 feet from the end of a residential dock in Northport. It remained there for over two years until Balcom arranged for the barge to be hauled ashore, but did so only after criminal charges were issued by the attorney general. The barge remains there today, still in violation of state law.  

“The Attorney General’s top priority remains getting the barge moved to a safe and legal location,” said AG spokesperson Kimberly Bush when asked by the Michigan Advance what the next steps were.

The charges against Balcom include a felony for the release of hazardous substances (oil) to waters of the state, as well as misdemeanors for trespass, marine safety violations, and placement of fill material (the barge) on Great Lakes submerged lands without a permit.   

Balcom will next appear for a pretrial conference before the Leelanau County Circuit Court on Dec. 27.