Ferry company considers sinking vessel in Lake Champlain

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BURLINGTON, Vt. (WCAX) Lake Champlain Ferries has been bringing people and cars between Vermont and New York since 1826. Now, it is considering retiring one of its vessels. And it turns out sinking that ferry may be their best option. But that idea has some people crying foul.

We tracked down one of the men involved in the very early stages of the process to find out some of the facts.

The days may be numbered for the Champlain. Jonathan Eddy of the Waterfront Diving Center tells us Lake Champlain Ferries decided there is not enough traffic to justify three boats running out of the Burlington to Port Kent crossing.

"It's just kind of a devastating thing. It's one of your babies," Eddy said.

Eddy says it doesn't make financial sense to sell the boat since they'd have to disassemble it to get it out of the lake. This past fall, the company invited representatives from a number of state agencies, as well as Eddy, to explore the idea of sinking the boat instead.

"She's been operating continuously on Lake Champlain since 1956. So there are literally hundreds of people who have worked-- both captains, deckhands, engineers and so on-- that have worked on the ferry Champlain. The last thing that they want to see happen is it cut up for scrap and sent to China or wherever," Eddy said.

The Champlain could join 10 other vessels buoyed in the underwater historic preserve managed by the Lake Champlain Maritime Museum.

"It would take some of the pressure, that is a diving pressure, off of the older, more fragile historic wrecks," Eddy said. "It would also be a good thing from a tourist perspective. It would attract visiting divers."

UVM Professor Ellen Marsden has studied how fish interact with artificial reefs.

"Fish like structure," she said.

Marsden says reefs provide fish a safe habitat for foraging and areas to spawn. But you can't just sink a boat into Lake Champlain.

"You've got to scrub it spotless," Marsden said.

There are a lot of factors to consider, including environmental concerns.

"This has to pass EPA, state standards, water quality standards, everything, not a drop of petroleum product, fuels, oils, anything on it," Marsden said.

Lake Champlain Ferries has not calculated the cost of such an extensive cleanup, but Eddy says the company would have to go through a similar process if they decided to scrap the vessel. The ferry would have to be at a safe depth to prevent boats from hitting it. It would also have to be inspected to prevent divers from becoming trapped within the ferry.

Eddy says he knows not everyone will support the project.

"There's certainly people that don't want anything foreign up in the lake. And I get it. That's certainly their prerogative," he said. "But I don't see any harm that would come of this."

Again, this project is very much in the early stages. Lake Champlain Ferries still has to calculate the exact cost of sinking the ship and get federal and state permits. After all that, they may still decide to nix the idea. Either way, Eddy estimates the process would take more than a year.