The unrelenting forces of time and tides can take a toll on pollution control gear in the St. Simons Sound, but it was not nature that inflicted several breaks this week in the defenses around Bird Island, officials said.
The damage done to oil leak protection booms around the island was wrought by human hands, which very likely wielded bolt cutters, said U.S. Coast Guard Lt. Commander Pat Frain.
The thick cables that anchor the booms in place were cleanly cut in four separate locations, said Frain, community liaison for Unifed Command.
The crews who monitor and maintain the booms in the St. Simons Sound discovered the cuts Tuesday and repaired them the next day, said U.S. Coast Guardsman Michael Himes, spokesman for Unified Command.
Frain reported the incident to the Brunswick Police Department.
Thousands of feet of boom has been in place along the environmentally-sensitive island since shortly after the shipwreck of the Golden Ray in September 2019, when the 656-foot-long vessel overturned between Jekyll and St. Simons islands while heading out to sea with a cargo of 4,200 vehicles.
An island that provides vital shorebird nesting habitat, Bird Island is located on the north side of the Brunswick River east of the Sidney Lanier Bridge. The boom is in place to protect the island’s shorelines from oil leaking out of the shipwrecked Golden Ray during salvage operations.
The anchor cables have previously separated on occasion due to the wear and tear of the swift tidal currents in the sound, leaving frazzled edges. But these breaks were clean, deliberate, officials said.
“It’s not uncommon to find the cabling worn through because they get beat up pretty constantly,” Himes said. “But this kind of piqued their interest because it looks like a clean cut.”
That much is clear. But there is a more puzzling question.
“We’re doing this to try to protect the environment,” Frain said. “We’re not even remotely sure why someone did this.”
Saboteurs? Vandals? Fletcher Sams, Altamaha Riverkeeper, the environmental advocate for the sound, has a word or two for the perpetrators, though none pass muster in a family newspaper.
Sams has not been one to reserve criticism when it comes to the salvage operation and the pollution threat to the surrounding environment. But this is the last thing they need, he said.
“This is an unnecessary distraction of their resources and it takes away from actually protecting our shorelines,” he said. “There’s no logic, rhyme or reason for anyone to be doing this. It looks like they just took bolt cutters to it.”
Brunswick Police Chief Kevin Jones said the culprits could be charged with criminal damage to property.
“Criminal damage is a felony,” Jones said.
The boom around Bird Island and other shorelines continues to play a role in protecting the local environment, Himes said. There was a significant oil leak earlier this month when the salvage operation completed cutting to remove the fifth section of the shipwreck, the remainder of which sits half-submerged between Jekyll and St. Simons islands.
The boom is bright orange and floats on the surface, resembling an oversized foam swimming noodle. It blocks floating oil. Vinyl mesh skirts hang below the boom to catch pollutants that might slip underneath.
Thick cable runs through the center of each section of boom, anchoring it to weights on the seafloor at either end.
Cleanup crews with Unified Command maintain the boom.
Not only did the destruction compromise the environment of Bird Island, but it also posed a danger to navigation in the area, Himes said.
“Why would somebody do something like that?” Sams said.
Anyone who knows something about the incident is encouraged to call Frain at 614-943-1970. Folks can also call Sams at 404-985-9606.
“And we need everyone to be mindful and observant on the water,” Sams said.
Unified Command consists of the Coast Guard, the Georgia Department of Natural Resources and Gallagher Marine Systems. It is responsible for ensuring that the Golden Ray’s owner and insurer adhere to environmental protection guidelines established by the federal Oil Pollution Act of 1990.