Oil leaked from the shipwrecked freighter Golden Ray has tarnished marsh grasses and soiled birds’ feathers throughout local inland waters, said Doug Haymans, Director of Coastal Resources for the Georgia Department of Natural Resources.
And while the mix of oil and nature is never a good thing, the overall present situation is more cause for sighs of relief than hand-wringing and anguish, Haymans said. While DNR wildlife biologists have spotted several hundred shorebirds spattered with oil in recent weeks, none appear to have lost the ability to fly, feed or have been otherwise immobilized, he said.
And while some 25 percent of the St. Simons Sound estuary’s shoreline has been oiled, cleanup crews from the Unified Command are beginning to gain the upper hand on the oil leaked from the Golden Ray, he said. The Unified Command consists of the U.S. Coast Guard, the state DNR and Gallagher Marine Systems.
Still, Haymans added, there is a long way to go before the 656-foot ship is dismantled and removed from the St. Simons Sound. He is keeping his optimism guarded.
“So the prognosis is really difficult,” Haymans said. “The extent of the incident isn’t over yet, let’s put it that way.”
On a bright note, however, it has been nearly three weeks since a significant release of oil from the Golden Ray last spilled into the St. Simons Sound. Dark, thick oil from the big releases on Sept. 27 and again on Sept. 30 spread throughout local inland waters, reaching the Frederica, MacKay and Back rivers, Quarantine and Bird islands, the southern shores of the Brunswick River and as far west Blythe Island.
Salvage workers aboard the overturned Golden Ray managed to plug the leaking oil vents shortly after the Sept. 30 discharge, according to Unified Command. Some 25 miles of inland shoreline were oiled, the most densely affected being a 3-mile stretch along the Brunswick River near the Port of Brunswick, Haymans said. The Unified Command has surveyed most of the 100 miles of inland water shoreline, he said.
The command’s Shoreline Cleanup and Assessment Team has employed 70 boats and hundreds of personnel in the clean-up efforts. It has used absorbent and barrier booms and siphoning boats to clean up the oil. It also has applied a natural sphagnum moss-based spray to treat the oiled marsh grasses.
Without an additional significant discharge from the ship in recent weeks, the SCAT crews have been able to focus on cleaning up the oil that is already in the waters. Additional crews also are now more strategically positioned near the Golden Ray to quickly respond should another discharge occur, Haymans said.
“We know we have roughly 25 percent of the shoreline in the estuary that we have identified as oiled,” Haymans said. “The heaviest areas were up around the port, about three miles of it. The vast majority of everything else is light oiling, very light. There is very little heavy oiling. And everything that is treatable, we have treated it.
“The main point here is we haven’t had a release in over 17 days. And everything out there is either treated or weathering naturally.”
DNR marine and wildlife biologists are closely monitoring the estuary, but have seen no definitive indication that oil contact has caused harm, Haymans said. The most affected wildlife appear to be shorebirds, he said. Through direct observation and close inspection of enlarged photos, biologists have detected oiling on between 200 and 400 small shorebirds such as sandpipers, Haymans said. Oiling has been detected to a lesser degree on the feathers and feet of larger birds such as pelicans and seagulls, he said.
Many of the smaller birds likely made contact with the oil while hopping through oiled marsh rack, Haymans said. It has been determined at this point to let the oil wear off of these birds naturally.
“The oil has gotten on their feet and very lightly, it appears, on their feathers,” Haymans said. “But the birds can still fly. The determination was made that it would be more harmful to try to capture them to clean it off.”
Manatees, dolphins and sea turtles have been observed in the local waters, and none have shown signs of oil on them, he said. “We do weekly surveys for those,” he said. “We’ve seen dolphins and manatees, but there have been no animals spotted that look like they’re covered with oil.”
The estuary and its rivers and creeks serve as a vital habitat for marine life, from shrimp to crab to fish and oysters. The DNR’s research vessel Anna takes monthly test runs at six locations within the sound, gauging the health of the shrimp, crab and juvenile fin fish populations. Nothing appears out of the ordinary thus far, Haymans said. (Local shrimpers reported earlier this week to The News that offshore white shrimp harvests remain bountiful.)
The DNR did close the recreational oyster harvest on Jointer Creek behind Jekyll Island, Haymans said. There has been no oil or fuel sheens sighted there, but it is connected to an artery that leads to the sound. “We did close that in an abundance of caution,” he said of the oystering grounds.
Barring a significant drop off in shrimp and fish populations by next spring, it would be difficult to gauge what effects the oil leaked from the Golden Ray has had on the local marine life, Haymans said. Lots of scenarios can contribute to a downturn: a hard winter freeze, too much saltwater, too much freshwater, not enough food in the estuary ... etc.
“The research vessel Anna and its biologist are just continuing all of our normal surveys,” he said. “Any time you’ve got a release of this nature there’s always concern.”
Additionally, the the DNR is testing water quality twice weekly at nearly two dozens locations, including offshore from the Jekyll and St. Simons island piers and near local public beaches. “We’re testing the swimming beaches and the pier areas,” Haymans said. “And at this point, there’s been nothing that’s been alarming.”