Oil began leaking Thursday from the shipwrecked Golden Ray and into the St. Simons Sound, viewed by experts as a sad inevitability as work progressed to cut free the vessel’s engine section.
A large flotilla of oil cleanup crews has been spread out in formation on the waters surrounding the shipwreck, aligning with the currents to capture oil that leaks, said U.S. Coast Guardsman Michael Himes, spokesman for Unified Command.
At least 17 oil pollution response vessels were on the water throughout the day Thursday and Friday. Trained crews on the boats combatted the emissions with oil skimmers, oil booms and current busters, a V-shaped vessel that steers floating fuels to an apex for collection, Himes said.
Himes said most of the oil has been contained within the environmental protection barrier, a 1-mile perimeter structure comprised of sturdy mesh netting underwater and oil containment boom floating on the surface. However, some globules of oil and fuel sheen have been swept beyond the EPB.
Cleanup crews are working inside and outside the EPB, he said. Spotters in overhead helicopters keep an eye out for leaks and help direct the vessels below.
About 400 people are taking part in cleanup efforts, including the folks who regularly patrol area shorelines for debris and pollution, Himes said.
“We are seeing a discharge,” Himes said. “We’re seeing a sheen inside the EPB and we’re seeing sheen and oil globules outside the EPB. Multiple strategies are at work.”
The 255-foot-tall VB 10,000 resumed cutting on the engine section early Thursday following a nine-day pause to rewire the rigging system that connects the crane vessel’s winches to the cutting chain.
This is the third cut into the shipwreck.
Recent oil discharges have not reached the level encountered in late December during the cutting of the stern section, Himes said. Crews had to corral several large floating clouds of oil from the sound during that operation, towing current busters into place with boats to catch the escaping pollutants.
“What we saw (Thursday) was not significant as during the (stern section) lift,” Himes said. “I would say what we saw yesterday was less than what we expected.”
What could be expected next is the thing that troubles Fletcher Sams. The executive director of the Altamaha Riverkeeper said he detected oil globules and fuel sheen in the waters outside the 200-yard safety zone established around the EPB.
“There’s a lot of product on the water today,” said Sams, who toured the area in the riverkeeper’s observation boat Friday. “We’re seeing globules of heavy oil, but we’re seeing some lighter stuff too. It looks like they’ve breached the engine room. There’s a good amount of product on the water.”
Salvors, Unified Command and environmental advocates like Sams have kept a wary eye on the cut into the engine section. Any remaining oil inside the shipwreck is located in the fuel lines, Unified Command said. And all of those fuel lines lead inevitably to the engine.
Many thousands of gallons of fuel may yet remain in those lines, Unified Command said.
“They’re working as hard as they can, I understand,” Sams said. “I don’t think this (discharge) is from the fuel line. And I just hope they have enough boats when they break that line.”
The Golden Ray had an estimated 380,000 gallons of fuel in its tanks when it overturned on Sept. 8, 2019, while heading out to sea with a cargo of 4,200 vehicles. Large amounts of oil leaked through vents in the hull on two occasions later that same month.
By the start of 2020, salvors had pumped more than 327,000 gallons of oil from the 656-foot-long shipwreck’s fuel tanks, Unified Command said. But safety concerns prevented salvors from reaching the fuel lines of the Golden Ray, which sits half-submerged on its port side between Jekyll and St. Simons islands.
Most of the remaining oil could have already voided the fuel lines. Or the fuel lines could be nearly full, Unified Command said.
“We always expect the worst,” Himes said. “We’re acting as if the lines are full.”
Vessels patrol the waters on the frontline of defense, employing skimmers, oil absorbent boom and oil retention boom. Patrols behind that scour the shorelines and marshes. And beyond that, crews have set oil retention boom along environmentally sensitive areas, such as the MacKay River, Bird Island and Clam Creek. These outlying booms have been clear of oil contact so, Himes said.
Likewise, the shoreline protection patrols have not encountered increased oil, he said. These crews pick up about one or two coin-sized globules of oil a day, covering a total of 6 to 10 miles of shoreline and marsh, Himes said.
“What we see inside the EPB tends to be more severe than what we see at the shoreline,” he said. “And that’s because of this tight environmental protection system we’ve put up. It’s like a giant filter, the goal of which is to protect the shoreline from any oil impacts.”
Unified Command consists of the Coast Guard, the state Department of Natural Resources and Gallagher Marine Systems. It responsible for ensuring that the salvage operation adheres to environmental protection regulations set forth in the federal Oil Pollution Act of 1990.
Lingering disasters like the shipwreck of the Golden Ray are the reason the act was established in the first place.
“It’s a wreck removal,” Himes said. “We know it’s not going to be clean. We know there’s going to be some level of release and debris coming from this, and we’ve certainly communicated our expectations of that to the public. The whole name of the game is to minimize environmental impacts.”