In the wake of Friday night’s completion of the cut to separate Section 6 from the shipwrecked Golden Ray, oil hemorrhaged from the half-submerged steel hull and fouled beaches along the southern shoreline of St. Simons Island.
Beginning at daylight Sunday, dozens of oil pollution workers combed the beaches from south of the St. Simons Pier to the shores near the King and Prince Hotel to the north, said U.S. Coast Guardsman Michael Himes, spokesman for Unified Command.
The beaches remained opened Sunday during the height of the Golden Isles tourist season, but Unified Command and the Glynn County Health Department cautioned folks to avoid tar balls and oil-soiled sand.
A flotilla of cleanup crews was mostly successful during incoming tides Saturday morning in containing the oil discharge inside the 1-mile-perimeter environmental protection barrier (EPB) that surrounds the shipwreck in the St. Simons Sound, Himes said. On the afternoon’s outgoing tide, however, a “dense ribbon of oil” flowed underneath the EPB on the swift currents and began washing up on St. Simons Island’s southern shoreline.
Fresh oil accumulated particularly on the beach near the Wylie Street access area near the Sea Island Golf Club’s Plantation Course and at the Myrtle Street beach access near the King and Prince, Himes said.
High tide at St. Simons Sound occurred at 2:42 p.m.
Oil also fouled the Johnson Rocks along Neptune Park’s waterfront and in front of the St. Simons Lighthouse.
“It’s not pretty,” Himes said. “It’s stretching from south of the King and Prince resort, around the fishing pier and all the way to the golf course. It’s fresh oil, which means it’s very sticky. It’s very easy to get on the bottom of your feet.”
Beachgoers might encounter freshly oiled sand, particularly along the most recent high-water mark, Himes said.
Folks are cautioned to avoid contact with oil. The county health department further advises that warm water and soap should be used to wash oil from skin. Harsh detergents or solvents could be harmful, the health department said.
“Dawn works really well,” Himes said.
Those who see fuel sheens or oil globules on the water near the shipwreck are encouraged to report it to the U.S. Coast Guard National Response Center at 800-424-8802.
Some 50 cleanup workers scoured the beaches Sunday, Himes said. More were on the way.
Crews were raking oil-soiled sand into mounds along the shoreline for pickup, Himes said. Yellow caution tape is being placed near some areas, a warning for beachgoers to avoid those sections.
“Some people might see yellow caution tape near public beach access points,” Himes said. “That doesn’t mean the beach is closed. Think of it as yellow warning light, to slow down and proceed with caution.”
No oil had been detected at Massnegale Park, East Beach and Gould’s Inlet beaches north of the King and Prince, Himes said. Overhead spotters have detected fuel sheens in the waters offshore from these beaches, however.
“There are some sheens, but no discharges,” Himes said.
Wildlife and marine biologists accompanying beach cleanup patrols have not detected harm to waterfowl or marine life from the incident, Himes said. Some oil has been detected in the marsh south of the Plantation Golf Course, most noticeable along the highwater mark.
“We are seeing marsh impacts like a bathtub ring in the marsh south of the golf course,” Himes said.
No oil has been detected farther inland at environmentally sensitive areas such as Bird Island near the Brunswick River, he said.
Oil left dark stains on the Johnson Rocks. Crews may employ devices that use hot water and high pressure to clean oil from the rocks, Himes said. At present, however, they are concentrating on cleaning oil from the beaches, he said.
“The priority is getting it off the sand,” Himes said. “It’s a very significant discharge. If there is a silver lining, it is easier to spot so people can avoid it. It also makes it easier to recover it, to shovel it up. It’s like triage right now. It’s going to take several days.”
The EPB has a dual layer of oil retention boom lining its surface intended specifically to retain oil discharges such as that now on St. Simons Island’s south beaches.
However, the oil was sucked beneath the boom by Saturday’s swift outgoing tides, Himes said. It is an issue that has been encountered often with the EBP during the nine-month cutting operation.
“A dense ribbon of oil went into the shipping lane and went right through the pier, leaving oil on the rocks as it passed,” Himes said. “It had dissipated into a sheen as it curled around East Beach and went out to sea. We’ll have cleanup teams out there, and we ask the public not to disturb them. Please, let them do their work.”
At around 9:30 p.m. Friday, a massive cutting chain tore through the last steel sheet binding Section 6 to the vessel, making relatively quick work of the next-to-last cut.
The resulting discharge created a large dark “ink blotter” of oil on the surface of the water inside the EPB, Himes said. In addition to the surface boom, the EPB has sturdy mesh netting below to contain loose vehicles and other large debris from the shipwreck.
According to Himes, the operation’s flotilla of cleanup crews has managed to contain and collect most of the discharged oil within the area surrounding the shipwreck. The majority of the oil has been retained inside the EPB, Himes said, as evidenced by the large dark oil cloud on the surface of the water there. That oil is being channeled by the incoming tides to the EPB’s western end, where it is being collected in a current buster — a large V-shaped craft designed to corral and collect oily surface water, Himes said.
Utility tugs inside the EPB are spraying water on the surface to help channel the oil toward the current buster. Additionally, pollution control crews are employing oil skimmer boats and absorbent boom inside and outside of the EPB to collect oil, he said. Another current buster is collecting oil beyond the EPB, towed by boats connected to either end, he said.
Veteran environmental cleanup spotter Ray McKeldey directed the movements of oil on the water from a helicopter which hovered above the scene throughout the day, Himes said.
The salvage phase to place Section 6 on a barge for transport out of the sound will remain on hold while crews address the oil discharge, Himes said.
Separation of Section 6 marked one more crucial step toward completely removing the Golden Ray’s wreckage from its lair in the waters between St. Simons and Jekyll islands. It was achieved by the sheer force of tension applied by the VB 10,000 crane vessel’s system of winches, wire rigging and pulleys.
At a compatible slack tide within the next couple of days, a dry dock barge will enter through a gate in the EPB and slide between the hulls of the VB 10,000. The crane vessel will lower the section onto the barge deck. Tugboats will tow the barge and its cargo under the Sidney Lanier Bridge and up the Brunswick River for dismantling at 615 Bay St. on the East River in Brunswick.
The removal of Section 6 will leave about 153.5 feet of shipwreck still in the St. Simons Sound. For the folks at T&T Salvage who started cutting on the 656-foot-long shipwreck in November, that means one more cut and two more hulking sections to go before it is gone.
Those who spot shipwreck debris on local shorelines are asked to call the debris hotline at 912-944-5620.