Pollution response teams on Saturday worked to contain oil that was discharged after demolition crews finished cutting away the sixth of eight sections of a giant cargo ship that tipped over off the Georgia coast nearly two years ago.
The oil could affect the water and beaches around St. Simons and Jekyll islands, Georgia Coastal Health District spokesperson Sally Silbermann said.
“We have all assets deployed and are moving quickly to contain any dense oil which migrated beyond the (Environmental Protection Barrier) with the shifting tides,” Incident Commander Chris Graff of Gallagher Marine Systems said in a statement Saturday evening. “Our people have trained and equipment is prepared to ensure the protection of the people and environment of St. Simons Sound.”
An environmental protection barrier set up around the wreck did block oil that was on the surface of the water, but as the tide changed, oil washed under the barrier. U.S. Coast Guard Petty Officer Michael Himes, spokesman for the wreck response management team, said it was the most significant discharge he’s seen from the wreck since removal operations began last year.
“This is the most extensive beach impact that we’ve had,” he said.
Patches of oil streaked the beach around the St. Simons lighthouse and near the pier. Himes said there is also oil on marsh grass and rocks — and on crustaceans like crabs and snails. He said he had not heard any reports of oil on fish or birds.
According to Himes, 40 to 50 people are working on shoreline cleanup, and another 50 to 100 people are on the way. He said there are between 20 and 25 vessels on hand to help in the water.
“When you have moments like this, it’s all hands on deck,” he said.
The sixth section of the cargo ship was separated late Friday, Himes said, which is will in the spill occurred. Himes said the oil escaped from the ship when crews were working to reduce the enormous weight of the section by flushing it out with sea water.
On Saturday, a pilot steered the sixth section away from the rest of the Golden Ray’s half-submerged wreckage, The Brunswick News reported. That leaves just one more cut before the dwindling remains are completely removed.
The 3,695-metric-ton (4,073 U.S. tons) mass of steel is hanging suspended by tension wire from the arching rafters of the 255-foot-tall (85-yard-tall) VB 10,000. The VB 10,000 and its load sit inside the 1-mile-perimeter environmental protection barrier that surrounds the salvage site.
The Golden Ray, carrying more than 1,400 vehicles, overturned after leaving the Port of Brunswick along the Georgia coast on Sept. 8, 2019. Harbor pilot Jonathan Tennant and about two dozen crew members on board were rescued and survived.
Work to get the wreck out of the St. Simons Sound has run into delays caused by the coronavirus and last year’s hurricane season. Earlier this year, the wreck caught fire.
The removal of Section 6 will leave about 153.5 feet of shipwreck still in the St. Simons Sound. Section 6 is bound for a dismantling site on the East River in Brunswick, where it will join the 3,640-ton Section 3. Each of the four remaining sections will be cut up into about a dozen smaller pieces at the location, loaded onto a barge and transported to the Modern American Recycling Services facility in Gibson, Louisiana.
Maritime engineers suspect these four middle sections suffered the brunt of any structural damage when the Golden Ray overturned on its port side Sept. 8, 2019, while heading out to sea with its cargo. The four outer sections were all transported via barge whole and directly to the MARS facility on the Louisiana Gulf Coast.
Cutting to remove Section 6 started July 22.
The Unified Command advises mariners to steer clear of the perimeter safety zone, which has been increased from 150 yards to 200 yards.
Fletcher Sams, Executive Director of the environmental group Altamaha Riverkeeper said he wants to see a bigger — and closer — examination of the impact of the shipwreck on the Georgia coast, in what’s called a Natural Resources Damage Assessment.
He said while this oil may attract more attention since it’s on the beach on a busy summer weekend, it’s not the first spill.
“The natural resources of the area have been continuously damaged for two years almost,” he said. “This time it’s in people’s faces.”
Anyone encountering oil, either on the shore or in the water, can report it to the Coast Guard’s National Response Center hotline: (800) 424-8802