With progress inching closer to an actual start time on the removal of the shipwrecked Golden Ray from the St. Simons Sound, two of Georgia’s voices in Congress are demanding greater accountability from those overseeing the effort.
In a letter Monday to U.S. Coast Guard Headquarters in Washington, D.C., U.S. Rep. Buddy Carter, R-1, and U.S. Sen. David Perdue, R-Ga., demanded weekly updates and greater transparency regarding any further delays in the project. The letter was addressed to Admiral Karl L. Schultz, commandant of the U.S. Coast Guard.
“If these delays continue,” the letter concluded, “then we must consider additional Congressional action to ensure accountability for our constituents.”
A response from Schultz’s office in Washington, D.C., was not immediately available Tuesday.
The 656-foot-long Golden Ray has sat half submerged between St. Simons and Jekyll islands for more than a year, having capsized while heading out to sea Sept. 8, 2019, with a cargo of 4,200 vehicles. The ship’s owner and insurer switched salvagers in January, choosing Texas-based T&T Salvage over the originally-contracted Donjon-SMIT.
In announcing the change in January, Unified Command said it hoped T&T Salvage would be able to complete demolition before the peak of hurricane season, Carter and Perdue noted in the letter.
Unified Command consists of the U.S. Coast Guard, the Georgia Department of Natural Resources and Gallagher Marine Systems. It is responsible for ensuring that the ship’s salvaging process adheres to environmental safety guidelines established by the federal Oil Pollution Act of 1990.
The project has experienced two setbacks since August. Unified Command “paused” the project for August and September, citing complications from a COVID-19 outbreak among the salvage crew in July and a desire to let the peak hurricane season pass.
Early this month, officials again delayed the project for “several weeks” to solve an anchoring problem for the massive 255-foot-tall crane vessel that will cut the Golden Ray into pieces for removal.
The nature of the most recent delay raised concerns for Carter and Perdue about viability of the plan, the letter stated.
“These delays are frustrating; however, what’s even more baffling is that this holdup is occurring after a two-month pause in demolition activity to allow peak hurricane season to pass and to regroup after an earlier COVID-19 outbreak,” the letter said. “Overall, the fact that this new challenge is engineering based has put in doubt whether a definitive plan is, in fact, being executed.”
Perdue and Carter called for regular progress reports and more transparency regarding the exact plans for the Golden Ray’s demolition.
“Each day the project is delayed is one more day that the public and the local communities must worry about something going wrong,” the letter stated. “As such, we must request weekly updates from the Unified Command and detailed explanations for any delays in the project. It is critically important to our community that this project is done safely and efficiently.”
Unified Command announced last week that a trio of sturdy pilings will be driven deep into the sound’s sandy bed to replace a troublesome anchor. The piles will join four working anchors that are spread strategically around the Golden Ray, according to Unified Command.
The stabilizing alignment will steady the VB 10,000 crane vessel when it begins cutting through the shipwreck’s hull with 400-foot lengths of anchor chain, said Coast Guardsman Michael Himes, spokesman for Unified Command.
Workers spent Monday and Tuesday working to drive the first of the 79-foot-long, 48-inch-in-diameter piles into the ground, Himes said. Only about 3 feet of the piles will stick above the sea floor, he said.
After the first pile is successfully set in place, the VB 10,000 will begin making its journey to the St. Simons Sound from the Port of Fernandina.
The VB 10,000 arrived in Fernandina from the Gulf of Mexico in early July in anticipation of its formidable task.
The VB 10,000 will cut the ship into eight parts, which it will then hoist onto a barge. Cutting and removal of each ship’s piece could take a week to 10 days, Unified Command officials said earlier.
Unified Command officials have described the salvage operation as unprecedented in scope and method. While stopping short of an actual price tag, Unified Command officials say this will be the most expensive marine salvage operation in U.S. history.
The ship’s owner and insurer are responsible for all costs.