Salvagers working on the shipwrecked freighter Golden Ray have “located and secured” a fuel leak that caused a significant discharge of pollutants Monday afternoon into the St. Simons Sound and surrounding waters, according to the cleanup effort’s Unified Command.
The sealing of the oil leak was announced Wednesday night. Crews have surpassed the halfway point of pumping some 300,000 gallons of fuel from the ship to nearby barges with the total at 169,000 gallons removed as of Thursday. Emptying the ship’s fuel tanks is the first step in the long process of actually removing the ship from the St. Simons Sound, where it has foundered since capsizing in the dark morning hours of Sept. 8 while heading out to sea with a cargo of 4,200 vehicles.
Crews determined the oil was leaking from a fuel vent on the port side of the ship, which is now underwater. The crew devised a seal to close off the vent, a solution created specifically for the present challenges, said Coast Guard Petty Officer Lauren Dean, a spokeswoman for the Unified Command. No further details were available on how the leak was accessed, but scuba divers have worked around the outside of the ship, and workers also have been lowered inside it on a regular basis.
“The leak was determined to have come from a vent on the port side of the Golden Ray,” Dean said. “As the incident has evolved, so have our methods of containing the fuel onboard. In this instance, the crews created a specially fabricated flange to cover the vent and to prevent future leaks.”
The Unified Command’s cleanup crews reported dealing with freshly oiled marsh grass Wednesday along Cedar Creek and on the Brunswick River. Oily pollutants have been reported also in the waters and marsh grasses throughout the sound and surrounding waters, including Bird, Quarantine and Lanier islands, as well as the confluences of the Frederica, Back and MacKay rivers. Small tar balls also have washed up onto the sand on Jekyll Island, the command said.
And folks with the Altamaha Riverkeeper said Thursday that they had detected fresh oil in the waters and marshes around Blythe Island, some 9 miles west of the shipwreck. The findings were reported to the Command, said Fletcher Sams, Executive Director of the Altamaha Riverkeeper. The environmental advocacy group is comparing notes daily with the Unified Command in an effort to better deal with the threat posed to the local marine environment. Other groups also are contributing information to Unified Command, including the Jekyll Island Authority and several local marinas, Petty Officer Dean said.
Local charter boat captains reported Tuesday finding silver dollar-sized dollops of oil floating in the waters and streaking the marsh grasses along the south end of the St. Simons Sound. Charter Capt. Scott Owens of Southeastern Angling is concerned about losing business as a result.
“Poling around the grasses and seeing silver dollar-sized globs of oil, and then getting back and seeing it all over my boat, I don’t know,” Owens told The News. “Something’s got to be done.”
A reporter with The Brunswick News went up on a flight with the Altamaha Riverkeepers’ Sams on Wednesday to tour the sound. Large expanses of surface water on the south side of the sound were characterized by a dull tint that appeared to temper the sun’s reflection. Sams said this “sheen” was caused by the mixture of fuel from the Golden Ray mixing with local waters.
Farther east in the sound, Sams pointed out to the reporter a large blob of something black floating on the water’s surface, which he described as “a big raft of oil and tar.”
“With this wind, most of it is broken up into the size of silver dollars or less,” he said. “So that’s a big raft of oil if you’re able to see it that clearly up here. That’s large.”
Also visible were Unified Command boats at several locations on the water, including skimmer boats siphoning off oily surface water funneled through booms. Yellow barrier booms were visible at several locations, including along the shorelines of Terry Creek off the Brunswick River, along the shoreline of the Frederica River, around the Golden Ray and at several other locations. The booms are meant to divert pollutants. Absorbent booms are being employed as well, to soak up pollutants.
Cleanup crews in hazmat uniforms also have sprayed a natural absorbent concoction of sphagnum moss on oiled marsh grasses. Other crew members have simply bagged up and hauled away oiled grasses.
The Altamaha Riverkeeper is conducting regular water sample tests in conjunction with University of Georgia marine biologists under the direction of Samantha Joye, an oceanographer and marine biologist who is considered an expert on oil spills. Joye worked extensively on the oil pollution problems caused in the Gulf of Mexico by the Deepwater Horizon disaster in 2010.
As an advocate for the Altamaha River and its saltwater delta here, Sams grows frustrated with the daily signs of pollutants in these local waters. But Sams, an Army veteran and paratrooper who served in Iraq, knows regular cooperation and open communication with the Unified Command is the best course of action to see these beloved natural resources through this present ordeal.
“I’m not out to vilify them, but I am advocating for them to have a more adequate response,” Sams said. “I’m out here to provide effective advocacy. I am results oriented. Screaming from the mountain top is not helpful. What is helpful is sharing mapping information on what we have found and continue to find. I want to do anything I can do with our small operation to assist them in having a more adequate response.”
The Coastal Health District in Brunswick urges folks to use caution when swimming or fishing in local waters. Avoid contact with oil or tar balls, the district recommends. For more information, call 1-844-863-0325.
Anyone who detects oil or other pollutants is urged to contact the National Response Center at 1-800-424-8802. Folks who spot oiled wildlife are urged to call 1-800-261-0980.