The ripple effect from the delay to remove the shipwrecked Golden Ray has reached all the way to Washington, D.C.
U.S. Sen. David Perdue, R-Georgia, issued a letter Tuesday objecting to Unified Command’s decision to suspend for at least two months the salvaging of the shipwreck in the St. Simons Sound. Perdue addressed the letter to U.S Coast Guard Rear Admiral Eric Jones, commander of the Seventh District, which is based in Miami.
Citing COVID-19 concerns and a desire to let peak hurricane season blow over, Unified Command announced Friday that it would delay the dismantling and removal of the 656-foot shipwreck until the beginning of October. Peak hurricane season usually begins in late August and lasts through September.
Perdue, who has a residence on Sea Island, said he believes the delay will only increase exposure to hurricanes while placing the vital marine estuary at greater risk.
“I write to express my disappointment with the recent decision to delay removal operations on the MV Golden Ray for two months until October 1,” Perdue wrote.
“With your most recent decision,” Perdue noted later in the letter, “Georgians now face the sobering fact that at best, the wreckage will likely remain in the St. Simons Sound into late 2020; and at worst, a major storm will upend all efforts and create an environmental catastrophe. Neither option is acceptable, yet it is where we find ourselves because of the decisions that have been made.”
Months of preparation had been leading up to a herculean endeavor to slice the 25,000-ton shipwreck into eight pieces, an undertaking that was expected to begin right about now. Construction was completed earlier this summer on a 5,000-foot perimeter environmental protection barrier surrounding the Golden Ray, designed to contain large debris and leaking oil when the cutting begins.
The behemoth dual-hulled crane barge that will do the cutting and hoisting of the ship’s pieces has been docked in Fernandina, Fla., since July 3.
An internal outbreak of COVID-19 this summer has hampered progress, infecting 10 workers and requiring the quarantining of 50 others, according to Unified Command. Strapped with the resulting delays in the middle of hurricane season, which began June 1, Unified Command determined it was best to place the crucial demolition phase of the project on hold.
Initial plans called for completing the bulk of the ship’s demolition and removal before hurricane season. That timeline was later readjusted to before peak hurricane season.
Perdue said he understands Unified Command’s reasoning and its desire to protect the project’s workers. But he took the command to task for its timing on the decision.
“I also recognize that the COVID-19 pandemic has brought about unforeseen challenges to both worker safety and supplying the necessary materials to complete the removal process,” Perdue wrote. “To be clear, I completely agree that the safety of those crew members working on removal operations must come first, and support the Coast Guard’s decision to quarantine workers on floating barges in light of the recent outbreak. However, given the known risks associated with COVID-19, in addition to the importance of finishing work before hurricane season, I am perplexed as to why it took until late July to formulate this plan.”
The Golden Ray capsized onto its port side Sept. 8, 2019 while heading out to sea with a cargo of 4,200 vehicles.
Unified Command includes the Coast Guard, the Georgia Department of Natural Resources and the Gallagher Marine Systems. It is responsible for ensuring the ship’s removal process conforms to environmental protection standards established by the federal Oil Pollution Act of 1990.
Texas-based T&T Salvage is the contractor conducting the ship’s removal.
Perdue asked Commander Jones to explain what transpired in recent weeks to prompt the decision. Perdue further requested to see plans should a hurricane strike the area.
“That being said,” Perdue wrote, “I would like an answer about what has changed since July 9 to delay the commencement of removal of the MV Golden Ray, as well as your detailed contingency plan to address a potential major hurricane strike on the Georgia coast.”
Unified Command officials deferred questions to the Coast Guard’s Seventh District. A Seventh District spokeswoman in Miami did not respond Thursday.
Susan Inman, coastkeeper for the Altamaha Riverkeeper, said the environmental advocacy group believes Perdue’s letter raises valid concerns.
“We absolutely agree with Sen. Perdue’s statement and we share all of his concerns,” Inman said. “Most importantly, this delay will further postpone the decision to complete a natural resources damage assessment so that stakeholders know the extent to which Hyundai should be held accountable.”