Oil sheens began appearing on waters of the St. Simons Sound this week, an unfortunate by-product of progress as an anchor chain cuts its way deeper inside the shipwrecked Golden Ray, Unified Command officials said.
Shipwreck debris also has started washing up on nearby shores, from odd pieces of plastic to what appears to be a car bumper.
The operation’s cleanup teams on land and water are dealing with both instances of pollution, but officials urge the public to report suspected debris or oil from the shipwreck, said Coast Guardsman Michael Himes, a spokesman for Unified Command.
The number to call for reporting debris is 912-944-5620. Anyone spotting a suspected oil sheen is asked to call 800-424-8802.
“There have been some light sheens of residual oil this week, and it’s fitting with our expectations,” Himes said. “That’s why we have multiple layers of defense. We’ve continued to recover debris on the shoreline this week. And we encourage people to report it if they see something they believe is debris from the shipwreck.”
The multiple layers of defense include land, water and air. Crews in boats and overhead in helicopters spotted “light oil sheening” this week, officials reported. Cleanup crews removed “a small amount of oil.”
No oil has been reported on local shores, he said.
“We’ve had no observation of oil on the shorelines or in the marsh as of Friday,” Himes said.
Himes described most of the debris recovered on local beaches this week as “small pieces of black plastic.” However, large pieces such as a plastic license plate holder and car bumper piece also were recovered.
The half-submerged Golden Ray has some 4,200 vehicles inside — its cargo when the 656-foot-long car carrier capsized while heading out to sea on Sept. 8, 2019.
Trained cleanup crews have been walking the beaches and shorelines searching for and removing debris, Himes said. The public also has reported debris, he said.
“We want to make sure the public understands that we are looking,” Himes said. “But we don’t want people to think they will burden us or trouble us. You know your beaches. If you see something that looks like shipwreck debris, report it.”
The shipwreck is surrounded by a 1-mile perimeter environmental protection barrier. The complex structure includes mesh netting below that is strong enough to catch a Kia rolling loose underwater and a boom lining its surface to catch oil. Numerous boats with trained cleanup crews aboard patrol the waters, some specializing in debris recovery and others in oil recovery.
Two sleek junk trawlers imported from the Gulf of Mexico also ply the waters, their powerful nets able to pull up large and heavy chunks of debris.
Thousands of feet of boom have been placed around environmentally sensitive areas or stand ready for deployment on the water if needed.
Helicopters patrol overhead, searching for oil or debris and choreographing all those below.
Infrared sensors, hydrographic survey equipment and other high tech gadgets monitor for everything from oil to the shipwreck’s stability on the sound’s sandy bed, Himes said.
“We have multiple layers of oversight and documentation,” he said. “It’s pretty comprehensive.”
Unified Command officials estimated the Golden Ray had some 380,000 gallons in its fuel tanks when it capsized. Two significant oil releases occurred shortly after, when oil escaped through vents along the sides of the hull. Over a period of several months late last year, crews pumped approximately 320,000 gallons of oil from the Golden Ray’s tanks.
Each vehicle onboard contains several gallons of gas, as well as oil and other automobile fluids.
Unified Command consists of the U.S. Coast Guard, the Georgia Department of Natural Resources and Gallagher Marine Systems. Its role is to ensure the salvage of the Golden Ray adheres to environmental protection standards established by the federal Oil Pollution Act of 1990.
Texas-based T&T Salvage is the main contractor hired by the ship’s owner and insurer, who are responsible for paying for all of this.