Unified Command continues its work on the Golden Ray on Monday. It was announced Thursday that Unified Command has finished the lightering process.

Two and half months and some 320,000 gallons later, officials on Thursday expressed confidence that they have removed every drop possible of oil and gas pollutants from the shipwrecked Golden Ray in the St. Simons Sound.

Unified Command announced the completion of the task to remove hundreds of thousands of gallons of fuel from more than two dozen fuel tanks on the overturned Golden Ray. Unified Command began the mission of pumping oil from the tanks on Sept. 25. The Golden Ray capsized onto its port side between St. Simons and Jekyll islands on Sept. 8 while heading out to sea with a cargo of 4,200 vehicles.

The Unified Command consists of officials from the U.S. Coast Guard, the Georgia Department of Natural Resources and the private sector Gallagher Marine Systems. The group is tasked with environmental cleanup and the ship’s removal under the guidelines of the federal Oil Pollution Act of 1990.

All total more than 320,000 gallons of fuel oil, and a mixture of fuel and water, have been removed from the Golden Ray, mainly through the process known in maritime circles as lightering. This consists of pumping fuel oil from the tanks aboard ship and onto barges, from which it is taken for safe disposal. That figure does not include the gas, oil and other auto fluids contained in each of the 4,200 Kias and Hyundais that were its cargo.

Some 500 people, from local folks to worldwide experts, took part in the lightering process, said Chris Graff of New Jersey-based Gallagher Marine Systems. The task at times involved workers rappelling into the off-kilter environment inside the overturned ship and sending divers into submerged tanks.

After pumping all oil from the tanks, workers went inside the tanks and steam-cleaned the interiors. Residual fuel from this process was collected and removed as well. The process addressed 26 tanks, containing heavy bunker oil, marine diesel gas and marine gas oil.

Two tanks, one containing heavy bunker oil and another containing diesel fuel, could not be completely cleaned because they lay under water on the ship’s submerged port side, said Coast Guard Lt. Commander Matt Waller. Workers used skimmers to remove the fuel that floated atop the water in those tanks, he said.

Diminishing the pollution threat the Golden Ray poses to local waters and shorelines was the main objective of the lightering process, said Jed Hewitt of the state DNR. “The removal of the fuel from the vessel has significantly reduced the remaining threat to the environment,” Hewitt said.

The ship began leaking fuels into local waters almost immediately. There were two significant releases of bunker oil on Sept. 27 and Sept. 30. Crews sealed a port side fuel vent responsible for the leak on Oct. 4.

DNR officials estimated in October that 25 percent of the St. Simons Sound estuary’s shoreline was affected by the oil, which left thick black smudges and streaks in the marsh grasses and sands. Oiling of shorelines was most significant at Bird, Lanier and Quarantine islands; the entrances to the Frederica, MacKay and Back rivers; and the southern shoreline of the Brunswick River. Oiling was detected as far inland as Blythe Island.

Unified Command’s Shoreline Cleanup and Assessment Teams put 70 boats and hundreds of workers to the cleanup effort. The crews employed skimmer boats, thousands of feet of oil-blocking and absorbent boom and a sphagnum moss spray to absorb oil fouling marsh grasses. Crews also walked the shores from Jekyll Island to St. Simons Island to clean up oil

The Unified Command is continuing an ongoing investigation to determine how much fuel oil was onboard the Golden Ray when it capsized and how much of that leaked into the surrounding environment, officials said.

Meanwhile, stiff winds forced Unified Command to delay work to cut away the ship’s rudder and propeller, a move that would relieve some 130 tons from the stern and help stabilize the foundering vessel. The project got under way Wednesday, but had to be cancelled shortly afterward due to increasing winds, Waller said

The barges Farrell and Columbia, both equipped with towering cranes, cannot operate in winds of 20 mph or greater, he said. In fact, the barges have retreated to the Port of Brunswick until the wind subsides, he said.

When work resumes, the 100-ton propeller and 30-ton rudder will be cut away with acetylene torches. The cranes, which are sturdied by retractable support posts that are set in the seabed below, will do the heavy lifting. With the ship on its side, the rudder and propeller are creating an additional burden on the ship’s stability, said Coast Guard Chief Warrant Officer Jeremiah Winston.

“Due to the the vessel’s orientation on its side, these components are creating a load which the vessel was not designed to support,” Winston said. “Imagine holding a milk jug with an outstretched arm compared to the same weight hanging at your side.”

Unified Command is still working to complete plans to build an environmental protection barrier around the ship, in preparation of cutting it into pieces for removal. Those plans will be made public as soon as they are finalized, Unified Command said. Thursday marked the 96th day the gargantuan ship has sat half-submerged in the sound, just south of the federal shipping channel that serves the Port of Brunswick.

Completing the fuel removal process was a good step toward eventually, finally, getting the Golden Ray out of here, said Coast Guard Commander Matt Baer.

“This milestone helps ensure the health of the environment and the livelihoods of the people who rely on the St. Simons Sound,” he said “Removal of the vessel is a highly complex and challenging operation.”

Anyone who spots oil or other pollutants on local waters and shorelines is asked to call the National Response Center at 1-800-424-8802. Folks who spot oiled wildlife are urged to call 1-800-261-0980.

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