Oil-tainted marsh grasses on St. Simons Island’s southwestern tip received a trim last week in an effort to prevent the effluent from the Golden Ray shipwreck from harming wildlife, said U.S. Coast Guardsman Michael Himes, spokesman for Unified Command.
Environmentalists made the decision to cut back the oily spartina grasses after weeks of applying a Sphagnum moss product on it in an effort to break down the oil while preventing its spread. The cutting affected about 30 square yards of marsh grass, which was growing in patches along the shoreline on St. Simons Island’s southwestern tip.
Georgia Department of Natural Resources Coastal Resources Division expert Jan Mackinnon oversaw the work, Himes said.
Basically, workers used standard garden clippers to cut back the oiled marsh grasses, leaving “a good six or eight inches” standing, he said.
The distinctive grasses will grow back as part of the seasonal transitions the vegetation undergoes, he said.
“We know it will grow back,” Himes said.
The oily grass “was removed because there was concern that the amount of oil still on the grass could potentially transfer to wildlife.”
After salvors completed the next-to-last cut into the shipwrecked Golden Ray on July 30, oil gushed from the severed section upon the sound’s swift-flowing tidal currents that next day. The leak fouled beaches, Johnson Rocks and marsh habitat on St. Simons Island’s south end.
Unified Command’s cleanup crews patrolled the beaches for weeks, shoveling oiled sand and removing it in bagfuls by the hundreds.
Workers also applied copious amounts of Sphag Sorb, a powdery substance that is sprayed on oil-polluted vegetation. The product coats the oil to prevent it from spreading while the natural breakdown process occurs.
The sphagnum moss spray has been used many times on oiled marsh grass during previous oil discharges from the Golden Ray. However, the discharge last July, in which leaking oil slipped beneath the oil retention boom surrounding the shipwreck on outgoing tides, was the most significant since salvors began cutting the ship into eight pieces in November.
After numerous applications of sphagnum moss, sticky oil remained attached to marsh grasses along the southwestern shoreline, Himes said. Workers trimmed the oiled marsh grasses to remove the threat of oil causing harm to wildlife, Himes said.
“The main goal is the prevent any potential oiled wildlife,” Himes said.
The 656-foot-long Golden Ray contained about 380,000 gallons of fuel in its tanks when it overturned Sept. 8, 2019 while heading to sea with a cargo of 4,200 vehicles. Two massive oil discharges occurred in the weeks following the shipwreck.
Crews then pumped some 327,000 gallons of fuel from the half-submerged shipwreck in the final months of 2019.
Biologists with Unified Command have spotted several hundred birds with oil on them since. However, the vast majority of waterfowl were still able to fly and function. Because they could fly, no attempt was made to capture them, Himes said.
Since September 2019, 29 dead birds with oil on them have been located, Himes said. It is not conclusive whether those birds died as a result of the oil, Himes said.
Biologists have captured, treated and released 18 oiled waterfowl. Ten oiled birds that were captured ultimately had to be euthanized, Himes said.
“We haven’t had any oiled wildlife sightings in the last week,” Himes said.
Crews continue patrolling area shorelines for shipwreck debris and oil pollution. A small amount of newly oiled sand was recovered near the Wyley Street beach access on St. Simons Island’s south end last week, he said. The sand was fouled by gray fuel sheen with thin streaks of darker oil, Himes said.
“We only needed a few bags and it was cleaned up very quickly,” Himes said.
Pollution cleanup crews with Unified Command are patrolling about 100 miles of shoreline weekly, Himes said.
Two pieces of the shipwreck remain in the waters between St. Simons and Jekyll islands. Salvors with T&T Salvage completed the seventh and final cut into the shipwreck on Sept. 4.
Section 5 remains suspended in the rafters of the VB 10,000 crane vessel, where it has waited for more than 10 days to be placed on a dry dock barge for transport out of the sound. Crews are now refitting the cradle on the barge’s deck to accommodate damage to Section 5 that was detected Friday when engineers visually inspected its sunken side for the first time, Himes said.
The work to refit the cradle could take most of this week. When Section 5 is removed, salvors will turn their attention to Section 4, the final remains of the shipwrecked Golden Ray.