Now that we know the Unified Command’s plan is to take the shipwreck of the 656-foot Golden Ray out of the St. Simons Sound in pieces, the question many in the Golden Isles have is how will this be accomplished and how long will it take?
Top experts in the business of salvaging shipwrecks are presently hard at work on that plan which, once completed, will give them a better idea of a timeline for completing the undertaking, a spokesman for the Unified Command said Wednesday.
“We have salvaging experts coming in from all over the world,” said U.S. Coast Guard Petty Officer Michael Himes, a spokesman for the Unified Command. “They are still developing a plan to fully remove the vessel’s hull and components (the engine, propeller, etc.) and cargo. Once that plan is approved and its expected timeline is established, we will be releasing that information to the public.”
Himes said he could not release the names of any of the experts presently working on the plan to disassemble the Golden Ray.
With most of the estimated 300,000 gallons of fuel oil removed from the Golden Ray’s tanks, salvagers now say that the 656-foot vessel is too unstable to attempt righting it and refloating it. The ship overturned on its port side Sept. 8 while heading out to sea with a cargo of 4,200 vehicles. It now lies where it overturned, between St. Simons and Jekyll islands, grounded just south of the shipping channel with its port side submerged and its starboard side facing skyward.
It would not be feasible or safe to attempt a righting of the ship by means of such tactics as parbuckling, a complex system of rotational leverage commonly employed to right overturned vessels, Unified Command said.
“Maritime experts have concluded through a detailed analysis of the vessel structure and its position on the seafloor that the vessel, in its current condition, cannot support the stress exerted on the hull and keel during parbuckling operations (righting the vessel),” the command stated on its website (ssiresponse.com). “The safest way of removing the vessel for the public, responders, and the environment, is to disassemble the vessel.”
The crew members who are working inside the shipwreck face numerous obstacles and dangers, Unified Command said. The stairways are now horizontal; the floors are vertical. Crews must build platforms just to establish a stable workspace. The ship’s angle also makes reaching some of the tanks difficult for the crews. Additionally, the workers must remain vigilant for falling — or rolling — vehicles and other dangerous objects that may have shaken loose during the capsizing.
Monitoring air quality inside the ship to ensure worker safety is a continuous concern, the command said. Officials also are assessing the ship for structural integrity, while monitoring for movement, changes in the hull’s shape and scouring of the sandy floor on which the 25,000-ton Golden Ray lies.
Meanwhile, members of the Shoreline Cleanup and Assessment Team (SCAT) continue to treat inland waterways, marshes and shorelines impacted by oil leaked from the Golden Ray. The crews have employed absorbent booms and surface barrier booms, siphoning boats and a natural spray concocted of sphagnum moss to treat oiled vegetation. Oil has been has been detected as far west as Blythe Island near Interstate 95, as well as along the south side side of the Brunswick River, on Bird, Quarantine and Lanier islands and on the Back, MacKay and Frederica rivers, among other places.
Some 70 boats and more than 400 people have been engaged in the Unified Command cleanup efforts, officials said. The Unified Command consists of the Coast Guard, the state Department of Natural Resources and Gallagher Marine Systems, which represents the ship’s owner.
The Altamaha Riverkeeper also has been active in policing local inland waters and marshes for signs of oil impacts from the Golden Ray. Riverkeeper Exective Director Fletcher Sams said his group has not confirmed any new areas in recent days that have been affected by oil from the Golden Ray. University of Georgia marine biology students are assisting members of the riverkeeper in tracking potential environmental damage as a result of the shipwreck. The students also have taken numerous water samples, results of which have not been completed.
Much of the oil that has been documented thus far in the local environment is so-called bunker fuel, Sams said. It is a thick, tar-like fuel that Sams and volunteers have documented leaving black streaks in marsh grasses and tar balls on shorelines. Sams has worked closely with the Unified Command’s SCAT teams to document these impacts.
“Most of the bunker fuel, the thick, heavy residual fuel, has been mapped,” Sams said. “The same areas that are on our maps as having been affected are on their (SCAT) maps as being affected. We’re speaking the same language now, we have matching maps. As far as repeated impacts in those places, it’s getting difficult to gauge what’s new versus old.”
Sams said riverkeeper volunteers are now focusing on detecting the lighter marine diesel oil, which is used to heat the thicker bunker fuel oil into a liquid fuel aboard ship. The two fuels combine to power the ship’s engines. Marine diesel oil is more likely to leave a surface sheen on top. Its sheen is distinguishable from naturally occurring surface water sheens because it quickly reforms if disturbed, rather than breaking up, he said.
On a trip north along inland waters Wednesday, Sams said he found eight examples of surface water sheen that he suspects is marine diesel oil. Sams is working with Unified Command’s SCAT teams to further investigate these sites. Sams said the marine diesel fuel is not as environmentally damaging as the bunker fuel, but it can cause harm and it is important that it is tracked and documented.
“It will biodegrade and it will go out, but it can cause damage,” Sams said. “And that’s what we’re looking at. Because it’s a lighter fuel, it travels farther.”
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.