The VB 10000 holds the stern of the Golden Ray before the barge arrived earlier this month.

The VB 10,000 crane vessel is gearing up to take another big bite from the rear end of the shipwrecked Golden Ray in the St. Simons Sound.

The cut to remove the engine room section of the half-submerged shipwreck could begin some time next week, according to Unified Command. It will be the third cut into the inexorably diminishing polluted eyesore that has been plopped between the resort islands of Jekyll and St. Simons for more than 16 months.

Cutting off this rearmost section of the shipwreck is a departure from the salvaging company’s original plans, which called for removing the foremost section next.

The change in plans is a decision both practical and environmentally sound, said U.S. Coast Guardsman Michael Himes, spokesman for Unified Command. Removing the engine room — and the engines therein — removes the receptor of all remaining oil inside the shipwreck, thus potentially eliminating the largest remaining threat to the environment, Himes said.

Another reason for the change: the barge specially designed to take the foremost section of the shipwreck is not here. The barge Julie B remains on the Gulf Coast, still on site after dropping off the Golden Ray’s severed bow section at a recycling facility in Gibson, La., on Dec. 30.

The barge 455-7, however, is chugging up Florida’s Atlantic Coast and heading for a rendezvous with the engine room section.

The barge 455-8 is docked at Mayor’s Point on the East River in Brunswick with the shipwreck’s stern section being “sea fastened” for its journey to Louisiana.

Like the Julie B and the 455-8, the barge 455-7 has a cradle on its deck specially designed to receive the precise dimensions of its intended cargo. As of Wednesday afternoon, the 455-7 was moving offshore of Palm Beach County.

On the salvor’s drawing board, the Golden Ray’s 656 feet was split into eight roughly similar-sized sections. They are marked 1 through 8, beginning with the bow and progressing to the stern.

The bow was removed during a three-week ordeal in November that was beset by impediments, including numerous broken chain links and a tropical storm threat. The stern section was removed Jan. 2 after a week of cutting.

The towering VB 10,000 is located a short distance from the remaining shipwreck’s rear. The twin-hulled, 255-foot-tall vessel crane will soon move in to straddle the engine section, after which work will begin to once again stabilize the hulking vessel by mooring it to an arrangement of anchors and piles arrayed in strategic locations around the shipwreck.

Once everything is in place, the VB 10,000 will crank up its winches, pulleys and lifting blocks to apply enough force of tension to rip the anchor chain up through the steel exterior, keel and 12 interior decks.

Salvors with T&T Salvage have replaced the original anchor chain links with chain links forged of a stronger steel, going from grade 3 to grade 4 steel, Himes said.

“At the earliest, we’re looking at cutting to begin sometime next week,” Himes said. “According to our salvage supervisor, a primary factor to remove Section 7 is to reduce possible pollution by removing the engine room. Also, due to the speed by which we removed section 8, it allows the Julie B time to return to receive Section 2.”

Susan Inman of the Altamaha Riverkeeper expressed concern that Unified Command’s Coast Guard and state Department of Natural Resources have not conducted a National Resources Damage Assessment to measure potential damage already incurred by the shipwreck in 2020. She further worries that the next cut could produce an oil release of unprecedented local magnitude.

“We know that debris and oil has been escaping the environmental protection barrier and that the current pollution mitigation techniques allow our shorelines to be impacted daily,” said Inman, the coastkeeper for the environmental advocacy group. “We are extremely worried that the next cut will likely release up to 60,000 gallons of oil, an amount that dwarfs the amount released last year that covered 30 miles of shoreline.”

The salvage operation’s air, water and land response to pollution control will be on the ready when cutting begins on the engine room, Himes said.

The Golden Ray overturned Sept. 8, 2019, while heading out to sea with a cargo of 4,200 vehicles.

Unified Command estimated the ship had approximately 380,000 gallons of fuel in its tanks to start its short-lived journey. In the last months of 2019, salvors pumped about 320,000 gallons of fuel from its tanks.

But there were many thousands of gallons of oil inside the ship’s piping system that were impossible to reach, Unified Command said. In one way or another, those oil pipes feed the engine and the engine room, Himes said.

“The pipes that carry the fuel and other fluids run throughout the ship,” Himes said. “You can reasonably imagine that everything you need to operate an engine successfully is going to run to that room.”

The shipwreck and the VB 10,000 are surrounded by a 1-mile perimeter environmental protection barrier. It has sturdy mesh netting below to catch vehicles that shake loose from the ship during each section’s cutting and lifting, as well as oil retention boom lining the surface.

A flotilla of more than 30 boats is crewed with specially-trained cleanup crews and outfitted with oil skimmers, oil-absorbent boom and oil retention boom. Spotters in planes search for oil streaks and fuel sheens on the water, directing the pollution-control flotilla below to respond accordingly.

Boat crews also employ current busters, inflatable craft that can be arranged to funnel and capture large blobs of floating oil.

Additional crews patrol local shorelines, grabbing debris and oil globules.

Significant oil releases were spotted during the stern section’s cut and removal earlier this month. Cleanup boats adjusted with the swift tidal currents throughout the shifting tides to capture the most amount of oil.

“We’re prepared if we observe discharges like we saw during the stern cut,” Himes said. “We have the assets to respond appropriately, quickly, and we have the equipment. The crews are ready and standing by to respond in the event of any discharges that might come. We anticipate pollution potentially every day on this response, and we prepare accordingly.”

Water quality monitoring devices are positioned at numerous points around the shipwreck, the sound and the tributary. Frequent checks of the gauges have shown no violations in acceptable water quality standards, Himes said.

Anyone who finds suspected shipwreck debris along the shorelines is asked to call 912-944-5620. Anyone who detects suspected oil leaks from the shipwreck is asked to call 800-424-8802.

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