Owner of twice-sunken Lake Michigan barge pleads guilty to felony

On Tuesday, the owner of a twice-sunken Lake Michigan barge, Donald Lewis Balcom, 89, of Traverse City, pled guilty in the 13th Circuit Court in Leelanau County to one count of Water Resources Protection Violation for Discharge of Injurious Substances to Waters of the State, a two-year felony, announced Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel. The felony charge arises from the fact that, when the barge first sunk in November of 2020, it released oil into Lake Michigan.

Sentencing was deferred, allowing Balcom 12 months to relocate the barge to a permanent, legal location. If he does so, the conviction will convert to a misdemeanor offense. In either case, Nessel will ask that the sentence include an order that Balcom must reimburse the state for any funds expended in dealing with the barge.

The barge currently rests partially on state-owned Lake Michigan bottomlands and partially on private land, having been haled ashore last year after the attorney general issued seven criminal charges against Balcom in June. The charges 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 contamination of Grand Traverse Bay on the northwestern coast of Michigan’s Lower Peninsula. If Balcom fails to move the barge within 12 months, he will be sentenced for the felony to which he pled guilty today.  

“I relaunched the environmental crimes unit in my office to prosecute egregious offenses against our state’s natural resources, and I am pleased to announce this conviction,” said Nessel. “But this matter is not yet resolved. The barge must be moved to a legal location, otherwise Mr. Balcom will face sentencing on the felonious release of oil from the sunken vessel into state waters of Lake Michigan. We have made it abundantly clear he cannot treat the bay as his own personal junkyard, and if he does not resolve the issue, the State will. My department remains committed to resolving this years-long issue and to protecting the Great Lakes whenever they come under threat.”

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