Measuring 656 feet long and large enough to carry over 4,000 automobiles, the gigantic Golden Ray is hard to miss in St. Simons Strait, where it lay on its side for over two years.
Now after years of setbacks due to oil spills, a fire, hurricanes and a change of contractors, a rescue team is busy removing the last section of the South Korean car transporter.
This means that the Golden Ray’s head-turning presence off the Georgian coast since September 2019 is coming to an end.
But environmentalists say the removal of the ship wipes out only the most obvious part of the wreckage on the surface. They are pushing for more details on what will follow to clean up the swamps and shorelines of remaining oil and other contaminants that are not so visible.
Environmentalists fear that agencies like Georgia’s Department of Natural Resources may not require a thorough analysis of damage to invertebrates and up the food chain, other wildlife, and the local economy.
Fletcher Sams, executive director of Altamaha Riverkeeper, fears time is running out before government agencies say a full investigation is unnecessary.
“It’s a no-brainer in my book,” Sams said. “It’s just a matter of ensuring that the coastal resources that contribute so much to the economy are intact in the future. I really feel like without a full assessment it will be difficult for the stewards of this resource, the state’s natural resources department, to tell the public that everything is safe with a straight face.
Since the Golden Ray capsized in 2019, a unified command consisting of rescue contractor Gallagher Marine Systems, the U.S. Coast Guard and the state’s Department of Natural Resources has overseen the removal of the wreckage and environmental response plans.
The enormous car transporter set sail for Baltimore out of Brunswick Harbor in the dark of night on September 8. the surveys found the improperly loaded vehicles caused the heaviest vessel to list, allowing seawater to gush out through an open door. The 24 crew members were rescued.
“Much healing to be done”
The environmental response to the Golden Ray leaks included collecting water samples, analyzing air quality, cleaning up oil along shorelines and collecting debris in an emergency. The collected water and sediment data along with sound and marsh surveys will be used as a baseline to determine a successful cleanup, according to the Unified Command website.
“It’s never too late to do it because it’s an ongoing problem. And I really feel like we have years before we even see a cure, especially if there is oil at the bottom of our rivers and estuaries. There is a lot of healing to be done, and it will only take time.
– Susan Inman, Hundred Miles Coastal Lawyer
Federal and state environmental agencies continue to conduct pre-assessments of damage to natural resources throughout the wreckage removal. Any decisions regarding further corrective action will be made by trustees appointed by Governor Brian Kemp.
“Once the last section is removed and all potential sources of pollution have been mitigated, the state and other federal administrators will assess the injuries as defined in the (Natural Resource Damage Assessment) process to determine if those injuries require further action.” and potential compensation, ”a statement from the MNR commissioner’s office said.
Like Sams, Susan Inman, coastal advocate for Brunswick-based environmental group One Hundred Miles, argues for a formal damage assessment, same as cleaning slows down with a third hurricane season since the ship capsized.
“It’s never too late to do it because it’s an ongoing problem,” said Inman. “And I really think we have years before we even see a cure, especially if there is oil at the bottom of our rivers and estuaries. There is a lot of healing to be done, and it will only take time. “
Over the past week, crews have been working to place one of the last sections of the ship on a barge to take to a facility near the Georgia Port Authority’s Mayor’s Point terminal in Brunswick. The remains of the ship are transported on a 1,200 mile voyage to a recycling facility in Louisiana.
“Finally, as we complete the transshipment of Section Six and prepare to lift and remove the final section of the wreckage, we continue a response posture that monitors and will rapidly mitigate any potential spill of debris and damage. ‘hydrocarbons,’ said US Coast Guard Chief Petty Officer Michael. Himes wrote in an email.
“At the same time, our assessment teams continue to survey more than 190 miles of shore from the air, on the water and on foot each week,” said Himes, spokesperson for the Unified Command.
Local officials question ratings
Inman said the cleanup appears to be mostly focused on removing debris, such as car parts that fell off when the ship was cut into sections. The shipwreck was named to the Georgia Water Quality List of “Georgia Dirty Dozen” shortly thereafter it ran aground.
“No one is talking about contaminants, and that’s really concerning,” she said, referring to the ship’s oil, the fluids in the cars and even the lead paint from the ship.
Elected officials say they are worried that the environmental analysis is not rigorous enough.
Brunswick Mayor Pro Tem Felicia Harris raised the issue of water quality monitoring at a recent committee meeting, when representatives from the US Coast Guard and the command center gave a briefing. brief update and answered questions from city officials.
“We don’t really know at this point what the actual damage could or could be on our waterfront as a result of operations related to this particular incident,” Harris said.
“And so I asked this question proactively, so that in two or three years we won’t come back and say, ‘Oh, you found something that came from that piece of that wreck being there'”, she declared. “How proactive are we in looking at this, staying current and monitoring this?” Because now remember this is our waterfront.
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The Unified Command has collected water samples since the vessel capsized and plans to continue until the withdrawal process is complete. In response to Harris, Himes said the public can report the oil sightings to the Coast Guard National Response Center hotline: 800-424-8802.
Commissioner Julie Martin also asked how far to the ocean the rescue team will pick up the debris.
“I was just wondering how someone fishing off the St. Simons Pier catches a whole system of defenses,” said Martin. “We have huge tides. There is a very dramatic pull with the tide. I don’t necessarily point a finger. I’m just trying to figure out how do you make up for all of this over the last almost two years? “
In August, strong currents spread oily seawater beyond the retention barriers.
Himes said the hydrographic survey – which looks like an underwater sweep – will focus on the area near the wreckage. An environmental barrier is put in place around the ship in an attempt to contain the oil and wreckage debris.
“While the hydrographic survey does not extend all the way to shore, we are fairly confident that the types of debris that leaks out of the EPB are plastic in nature and therefore float,” Himes said.
The plan, Himes said, is for a clean-up crew to stick around to pick up what washed up on the shore after the net that had been around the Golden Ray was removed.
“The way forward is that we want to keep this sound as close to the same condition as it was before the Golden Ray capsized,” Coast Guard Lt. Commander Michael Metz told city commissioners.
“We want to make sure, according to the state, that the beaches are as clean as possible before our demobilization,” Metz also said. “And then after that, once the unified command and the state come to an agreement and make their decision, all resources will be demobilized.”
Himes said Ray’s Barrier did its job under complex circumstances that involved trying to contain pollutants with changing tides and allowing marine life and removal crews to maneuver in and out. outside.
“Even with all of the benefits of EPB, we were restrained in our disclosures to the public that wreckage removal operations had the potential to produce fires, debris and oil spills,” Himes said. “As each of these scenarios unfolded, our response posture enabled us to rapidly assess and mitigate any environmental impact as soon as it was safe for our staff to access the affected areas. “
But for Sams, the July oil spill is another example of why it was a bad idea for those in charge of recovery to switch contractors early on in an attempt to reduce the schedule by one month. Two years have passed and the cleanup is underway. A huge floating saw crane further obscures the view of the ocean.
“They said they could save a month on the withdrawal and I think it was an unacceptable risk to the Sound,” Sams said.
The sinking of the Golden Ray remains a costly undertaking for its owners and insurers, with a trade magazine estimating in September that it exceeded $ 842 million, well above the inflation-adjusted $ 597 million when the Exxon Valdez ran aground in Prince William Sound in Alaska in 1989.
A recent decision by the National Transportation Safety Board confirmed a Coast Guard investigation in 2020 that the vessel likely capsized due to an unbalanced load that was made worse by incorrect stability calculations.