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A crane lifts a heavy piece of the Golden Ray from the sound onto a barge last month.

Crews with the Golden Ray salvage operation have plucked 777 vehicles from the bottom of the St. Simons Sound.

That’s how many they had fished from the seabed as of Wednesday morning within the 1-mile-perimeter environmental protection barrier (EPB) that is still in place between St. Simons and Jekyll islands.

Employing mostly cranes guided by hydrographic imaging devices, underwater cameras and hazard-pay divers, salvors have also removed 54 pieces of loose interior decking from inside the EPB, said Tyler Jones, spokesman for Unified Command.

The month-long operation to clear the EPB of vehicles and other large debris could wrap up as soon as Thursday or Friday, said Jones, who also is a spokesman for Georgia’s Department of Natural Resources. After that, a hydrographic survey will have to confirm that the EPB is clear of debris before salvors commence with dismantling the EPB itself, he said.

“We’re in the final phases of the removal of recoverable debris, the cars and decks and things like that,” Jones said. “Next there will be a hydrographic survey, which could begin as early as tomorrow or Friday. As soon as Unified Command reviews that survey and gives the all-clear, that is when the EPB removal will begin.”

Salvors began the current cleanup phase at the start of November, shortly after the shipwreck removal phase was completed Oct. 25. That is when the last gargantuan chunk of the ship departed the sound on the deck of a dry dock barge. It marked the completion of a monumental undertaking that began in November 2020 to rip the 656-foot-long shipwreck into eight hulking sections for removal from the sound.

The Golden Ray’s half-submerged visage had been a fixture in the sound since Sept. 8, 2019, when the vessel overturned while heading out to sea with a cargo of 4,161 vehicles.

Described by Unified Command as unprecedented, the salvage was not without its setbacks and ordeals. These included several oil spills that impacted surrounding waters, shorelines and marsh habitat, as well as a giant conflagration sparked by a welder’s torch that engulfed the shipwreck in flames and smoke.

In addition to cleanup and salvage costs climbing to an estimated $742 million for the Golden Ray’s owner and insurer, the state Environmental Protection Agency is now proposing a $3 million pollution fine against these parties. (See related story.)

In addition to the hundreds of vehicles and dozens of deck pieces recovered inside the EPB, crews have removed 106 large pieces of miscellaneous shipwreck pieces, Jones said. Additionally, more than 20 shipping containers filled with aggregate rock have been hoisted from the seabed, Jones said. These containers, anchored with rocks, were placed around the shipwreck’s sunken portside hull to contain scouring and maintain its stability within the swift-flowing tidal currents of the sound.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is reviewing the submitted plan to remove some of the loose aggregate rock that also was placed around the shipwreck’s sunken side for the same reasons, Jones said.

The vehicles, deck sections and other debris are being placed on barges for transport out of the sound. Glynn Iron and Metal Recycling is handling the hundreds of recovered vehicles, Jones said.

Salvors completed construction of the EPB in the early summer of 2020. It was built to surround the shipwreck and contain loose debris during the salvage operation. It consisted of sturdy mesh netting below and floating oil-retention boom lining its surface. It is anchored by 40 pilings, each 80 feet long and driven half their length into the seabed.

Unified Command consists of the U.S. Coast Guard, the state DNR and Gallagher Marine Systems. It is responsible for ensuring that the salvage operation adheres to environmental protection standards established by the Oil Pollution Action of 1990.

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