Aug. 4—As crews battle the worst oil discharge since cutting began, salvagers are proceeding cautiously to avoid exacerbating the problem with still more released oil from the shipwrecked Golden Ray in the St. Simons Sound, according to Unified Command.
Four days after it was cut from the dwindling remains of the shipwreck, the 3,695-metric-ton Section 6 remained Tuesday in a holding pattern — partially submerged in the waters while hanging suspended in the arching rafters of the twin-hulled VB 10,000 crane vessel. Crews continued for the fourth-straight day to focus instead on cleanup of oiled beaches and marshes.
Some 80 workers combed the beaches and shorelines on St. Simons Island's south end Tuesday, bagging oiled sand and treating spartina marsh grass with a sphagnum moss spray.
It could be several days before Section 6 is lifted entirely out the water from inside the 1-mile-perimeter environmental protection barrier (EPB) that surrounds the shipwrecked Golden Ray and placed on a barge for transport out of the sound, said U.S. Coast Guardsman Michael Himes, spokesman for Unified Command.
Salvors may have to lift the section entirely out of the water in stages, depending on whether oil discharges from it during the process and to what extent, Himes said. With the section secured to it by sturdy wiring, the VB 10,000 moved a short distance from the remainder of the wreckage shortly after it was separated by cutting chain Friday night.
Section 6 is resting on its side and is 73.5 feet long, 113 feet from keel to deck and 135 feet across.
An attempt to lift the section completely out of the water Monday morning was halted after it began discharging oil inside the EPB, Himes said.
No attempt was made at lifting Tuesday. However, cleanup crews did detect oil "pooling" near Section 6 inside the EPB at around 7 a.m., he said.
"They might not even attempt it (Wednesday)," Himes said. "Section 6 has the potential to be in a quasi-lifted state for the duration of the week. But the oil inside the section that continues to eke out every...lift, that changes the duration of the lifting operation."
The EPB has a dual layer of oil retention boom lining its surface, its intended purpose to contain any oil leaking from the shipwreck so that crews can remove it. In general, oil floats.
On Saturday, however, a thick river of oil was suctioned beneath the EPB's boom by the swift currents of the afternoon's outgoing tide. Oil fouled beaches from Wyley Street south of the St. Simons Pier to Massengale Park north of the King and Prince and coated the Johnson rocks along the Neptune Park waterfront and elsewhere.
Oil reached deep into the island's marsh area west of Wyley Street (See related story.).
Oil discharges typically have occurred during separation and lifting operations. On several occasions, discharged oil has managed to slip beneath the EPB with the swift tidal currents.
"This is easily the worst since cutting started in terms of a significant oil discharge," Himes said. "The oil that has come out of Section 6 is more significant than any of the sections we've removed so far."
In the days since, Unified Command cleanup crews have bagged up tens of thousands of pounds of oily sand on affected beaches — 100 bags and 35,000 pounds on Saturday alone.
Crews will continue to apply sphagnum moss to marsh grasses in an effort to coat oil and prevent it from sticking further to spartina grasses and wildlife.
Section 6 was the sixth section to be cut from the shipwreck. Its removal will leave one cut and two sections remaining in the waters between Jekyll and St. Simons island.
Cutting is achieved with a massive anchor chain that tears up through the shipwreck under the power of the VB 10,000's winches, wire rigging and pulleys.
In the previous cuts, salvors managed to lift the separated section, secure it to a barge deck and tow it from the St. Simons Sound in a matter of a few days.
"It's a reminder that this is why this is whole response is a pollution response," Himes said. "The wreck removal is a phase of the pollution response. Unified Command has looked at the wreck removal as an environmental threat to the sound and the whole operation has been geared toward removing that threat. Right now, the focus is on maximizing the personnel available to do cleanup."
The 656-foot-long Golden Ray held approximately 380,000 gallons in its tanks when the vessel capsized while heading out to sea Sept. 8, 2019, with a cargo of 4,200 vehicles. Some 327,000 gallons of fuel was pumped from the tanks in the final months of 2019.
An environmental advocate for the Altamaha River estuary and the St. Simons Sound blasted the overall operation and the recent oil release. Fletcher Sams, executive director of the Altamaha Riverkeeper, called for the Coast Guard and the state Department of Natural Resources to conduct a detailed study to determine any environmental damage caused by the salvage operation.
"This spill is just one of the multiple spills that have impacted the sound over the past two years," Fletcher told The News. "The difference here is that the impact is not in a far corner of the marsh away from the public, but right in our backyard for everyone to see. This is a direct result of Unified Command choosing the riskiest removal plan, despite numerous warnings from contractors who have done this type of removal several times... It is beyond time for Unified Command to initiate a Natural Resources Damage Assessment."
Despite this weekend's massive oil release, water and air quality testing by Unified Command experts continues to show no damage, Himes said. Beachgoers and shoreline cleanup patrols have reported detecting fuel odors.
"Water samplings have not revealed any exceedances of state water quality standards, nor has our regular air monitoring detected any exceedances," Himes said.
Unified Command consists of the Coast Guard, the state DNR and Gallagher Marine Systems. It is responsible for ensuring that salvage operations adhere to environmental protection guidelines established by the federal Oil Pollution Act of 1990.
People who spot fuel sheens or oil globules on water near the shipwreck are encouraged to report it to the U.S. Coast Guard National Response Center at 800-424-8802.