As salvage operations progress on the shipwrecked Golden Ray in the St. Simons Sound, the overturned freighter’s oily imprint continues to expand within local inland marshes, according to local environmental advocates.

Crews have removed most of the 300,000 gallons of fuel that was onboard when the 656-foot ship foundered, overturning on its port side in the dark hours of Sept. 8 between St. Simons and Jekyll islands while heading out from the Port of Brunswick with a cargo of 4,200 vehicles. As of Thursday, crews had unloaded more than 220,000 gallons of fuel from the freighter, said U.S. Coast Guard Petty Officer Michael Himes, a spokesman for the Unified Command. This does not include the fuel that was in each of the 4,200 vehicles in the ship’s cargo hold, which was the source of a fire that emitted flames and black smoke from the exposed starboard side of the ship as Coast Guard crews responded to the wreck at around 2 a.m. on Sept. 8.

Meanwhile, members of the Altamaha Riverkeeper and postgraduate marine biology students with the University of Georgia have found extensive oil smears in marsh grasses, stretching as far west as Blythe Island on the Brunswick River, said Fletcher Sams, executive director of the Altamaha Riverkeeper. Sams said he and the students have found a continuous stretch of oiled marsh grass along the south shore of the Brunswick River, from Cedar Creek near Jekyll Island all the way to Blythe Island near Interstate 95.

Unified Command’s Shoreline Cleanup and Assessment Team (SCAT) crews are treating the oiled marsh grasses with a natural absorbent spray comprised of sphagnum moss.

“Sphagnum, a standard oil spill recovery technique for marsh areas, binds to the oil to prevent it from spreading and allows for its natural degradation,” a Unified Command statement released late Thursday explained. “Additional response teams are patrolling area beaches to recover any tar balls which have come ashore using proper safety equipment and appropriate tools.”

Sams had reported to The News late last week of finding oiled marsh grasses as far back as Blythe Island, some 9 miles from the Golden Ray. After a rainy weekend accompanied by stiff nor’easter winds forced the riverkeeper and the UGA students to temporarily postpone searches on the water, they returned again earlier this week, Sams said. The signs of oiling in the marsh are more dense than originally suspected, he said.

“On the southern border of the sound, all the way to Blythe Island, that whole thing is soiled,” Sams said Thursday. “It’s the heaviest oiling that I’ve seen. It’s like an 8-inch high band that goes on a horizontal line in the marsh grass. It wraps all around the port almost to (Interstate) 95. There are a lot of places on the shoreline at the low tide mark, it goes 3 feet up from the bottom. The grasses are completely oiled in some places.”

Shortly after the shipwreck, oil began appearing in the sound at Bird, Lanier and Quarantine islands, as well as at the entrances to the MacKay, Back and Frederica rivers. After a significant discharge of oil from the Golden Ray during king tides on Sept. 29, Unified Command cleanup workers detected small tar balls washing up on the shores of Jekyll Island and along Cedar Creek and the Brunswick River. On Oct. 2, salvage crews fashioned a seal that closed off the vent that was the source of that large discharge of oil, Unified Command said.

Overall, Unified Command has responded with 70 boats and hundreds of workers, combatting the pollutants with thousands of feet of oil-absorbent booms, as well as containment booms to prevent the spread of oil sheens on the water’s surface. They also have employed skimmer boats to siphon oily surface water and have treated the marsh grasses with the absorbent sphagnum moss spray.

The weekend’s poor weather conditions forced Unified Command also to partially suspend its operations briefly, but the crews have been back to work at full force since the weather cleared earlier this week, Himes said.

Himes said more than 400 people are working on the salvage effort with the Unified Command, which consists of the Coast Guard, the state Department of Natural Resources and Gallagher Marine Services. Operating at the site of the shipwreck are two crane barges and 15 work barges, including a large fuel recovery barge with a 1 million gallon capacity, Himes said.

The majority of the salvage effort’s personnel are representatives of the private sector Gallagher Marine Services, he said. Most are working on the cleanup efforts as part of Unified Command’s Shoreline Cleanup and Assessment Team (SCAT), Himes said. The SCAT teams are making regular patrols of the affected areas identified, comparing notes with the Atlamaha Riverkeeper daily and responding to reports called in to the National Response Center from local residents and boaters, he said. Additionally, Unified Command is regularly monitoring water quality at 22 locations “to ensure the safety of the public,” a statement said.

“Our salvage teams are updating their plan on a daily basis,” Himes said. “Right now the focus is on getting all the oil removed from the vessel and conducting shoreline mitigation. Our priority is the safety of the environment and the local public.”

Unified Command planners are still developing the next phase of the operation after all the fuel has been removed from the Golden Ray, Himes said.

When asked by The News about the cost of the cleanup and salvage and about who pays for it, the Unified Command could not answer Thursday. He said it will not be determined whether the ship’s owner will be held accountable for the costs until the completion of the Coast Guard and National Transportation Safety Board investigation.

“Because the incident is still under investigation, the Unified Command is focused on the response right now,” Himes said. “We won’t be putting out (the cost) until the investigation is complete. That (deciding who pays for it) is to be determined by the investigation.”

The postgrad students working with the Altamaha Riverkeeper are lab technicians under the supervision of UGA professor Samantha Joye, an oceanographer and marine biologist who is an expert on the affects on nature of large oil spills. The students have taken numerous samples of local waters, but results of those tests have not yet been completed, Sams said.

“They are tremendously dedicated,” Sams said of the UGA students.

The Glynn County Health Department and the state Coastal Health District advise people to use caution when fishing and swimming in local waters. Anyone who spots oil or other pollutants on local waters and shorelines is asked to call the NRC at 1-800-424-8802. Folks who spot oiled wildlife are urged to call 1-800-261-0980.

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