Customers of Southeastern Angling caught some redfish and shot some marsh hens Tuesday morning during an outing on the St. Simons Sound, but it was not a good day on the water for charter boat Capt. Scott Owens.
Tarry oil that had leaked from the shipwrecked freighter Golden Ray was smeared in streaks on the hull of his boat when they returned that afternoon. And Owens saw plenty of oily dollops floating in the waters and leaving black streaks through the marsh grasses on the south end of the St. Simons Sound during the morning trip, he said.
“We just ran a marsh hen trip on St. Simons Sound and the amount of tar oil, from the Jekyll jetty all the way to the Sidney Lanier Bridge, is just staggering,” Owens said. “It is all over our boats just from running the sound.”
Southeastern Angling customers typically enjoy preparing a surf-and-turf meal of fish and fowl after one of Capt. Owens’ popular “Cast and Blast” tours. But these customers were leery of eating anything taken from those waters, Owens said.
“There are blobs oil everywhere on the south end of the St. Simons Sound, from the size of a BB to the size of a silver dollar,” Owens said. “And it’s all over the grass. They are worried about eating their catch.”
The Unified Command, the group tasked with responding to the shipwreck, reported dealing Monday with a “significant discharge” of oil from the Golden Ray, said spokesman Michael Himes, a U.S Coast Guard Petty Officer. The command also reported “weathered” tar balls washing up on the sand at Jekyll Island.
The 656-foot freighter has foundered on its port side in the sound – between St. Simons and Jekyll island -- since overturning on Sept. 8 while heading out of the Port of Brunswick with a cargo of some 4,200 vehicles. The command is in the process of pumping some 300,000 gallons of fuel from the Golden Ray, the first phase in removing the behemoth ship from the sound. The Unified Command had pumped some 74,134 gallons of fuel from the Golden Ray as of Tuesday, Himes said.
The Unified Command responded to Monday’s release of pollutants from the ship with skimmer boats to remove oily sheens on surface water. Also, workers placed of thousands of feet of absorbent booms and barrier booms to remove and contain pollutants. Containment booms also were placed to surround the Golden Ray, the Unified Command said. Additionally, divers worked on the submerged portion of the ship to seal areas where the oil is leaking, Himes said.
Fletcher Sams, Executive Director of the Altamaha Riverkeeper, said Unified Command officials told him they worked from 2 p.m. to 9 p.m. Monday to contain the discharge from the ship. Fletcher found plenty of new signs of “fresh oil” during an inspection on the water Tuesday, he said. “It’s bad, man,” Sams said. “It’s bad.”
Himes said more fuel discharges from the ship can be anticipated. Water entering the half sunken vessel on high tide is entering its fuel pipes and taking fuel with it on outgoing tides, he said. These fuel pipes are meant to stand vertically, but are now horizontal, he said. Coastal Georgia has some of the highest tide differentials on the entire eastern seaboard.
“Because of the tidal changes, there will be periodic discharges,” Himes said. “Forty percent of the ship is below the surface of the water and the venting system is designed to be vertical. As the tide comes in, it’s filling up and as the tide goes out, it’s going out with it.”
Oil and fuel sheen also were been detected on the MacKay, Back and Frederica rivers, as well as on Bird, Lanier and Quarantine islands. Owens and his partner, Rob Aldridge, have noticed oily runoff in the waters ever since the Golden Ray overturned, Owens said.
However, it appears to be getting worse, he said. The company is already losing customers. Greg Hildreth of Hildreth Charters also expressed concerns about losing business to environmental degradation as a result of pollutants from the shipwreck.
“We’ve already lost business because of this, and we’re going to continue to lose business,” Owens said. “We’ve had several people cancel because they’re worried about coming to the beach with their families right now.”
The Unified Command urges anyone who detects oil or other pollutants in local waters to call the National Response Center at 1-800-424-8802. The Unified Command to date has placed some 70 boats and 350 workers on the job of salvaging the ship and addressing pollution in local waters.
Folks like Owens, who make their living on these waters, want to see better results.
“There’s 40 boats on St. Simons Sound running around, and I’m trying figure out what they’re doing,” Owens said. “I’ve been very quiet until now. But it’s affecting my livelihood at this point. I need them to do more. I’m sure what they’re doing is helping, but it’s not helping enough.”
The Coastal Health District in Brunswick urges folks to use caution when swimming or fishing in local waters. Folks should not swim or fish in areas where a fuel sheen or oil is visible, health district officials advise. Folks should avoid contact with oil or tar balls, but soap and water should be sufficient to remove such from skin.