The Coast Guard, the owners of the capsized Golden Ray auto cargo ship and contractors met Tuesday to formulate a plan to remove the vessel from the channel and complete the cleanup of leaking petroleum.
Coast Guard Cmdr. Norm Witt of Marine Safety Unit Savannah told assembled members of the media Tuesday afternoon that the process for dealing with the Golden Ray isn’t an hours or days issue — it’s more of a weeks and months affair.
However, he said the plans are to open up the port in a limited fashion as soon as possible, which could be as early as Thursday.
The cleanup of what is believed to be diesel fuel geared up Monday and continued Tuesday as work vessels recovered the oily sheen from around the ship, monitored the beaches and deployed containment booms.
State Department of Natural Resources spokesman Tyler Jones said that a J-shaped boom had been deployed around the ship and another encircled bird island, a dredge spoil island in St. Simons Sound that provides nesting habitat for birds.
Thus far, the leak is not as bad as it appears but, Jones said, “There’s definitely a visible light sheen.”
Earlier Tuesday morning, the St. Simons Island Sea Turtle Project posted to Facebook several photos showing oil containment gear washing up on the beach, including a boom specifically marked “Daeil Mini Oil Boom.”
However, according to the post, there evidently was no tar or oil on the gear that volunteers discovered.
Gallagher Marine Systems of Moorestown, N.J., has been contracted by the Golden Ray’s owners to remove the ship and clean up any contaminants. Gallagher has skimmers working to remove the oily sheen.
The DNR has repeatedly said that Bird Island is an especially sensitive area.
The island that the Army Corps of Engineers built in 2008 of dredge spoils has become a highly successful project as it has attracted enormous colonies of nesting seabirds and shorebirds, said Tim Keyes, a biologist for the DNR’s Wildlife Resources Division. Fortunately, most of the young birds that hatched this year have fledged and moved on, he said, but at one point the island was home to more than 10,000 pairs of nesting royal terns. There were also 500 pairs of Sandwich terns, 200 pairs of brown pelicans along with least terns and other birds, he said.
“We had oyster catchers nesting out there this year,’’ he said. “We banded 1,500 royal tern chicks out there this year.”
Witt said members of the unified command — Coast Guard, DNR and Gallagher — are continually monitoring and refining booming strategies going forward.
“There obviously is a considerable amount of fuel, lubrication oil on the vessel,” Witt said. “Currently the vessel’s systems — i.e., tanks — are working for the most part, as far as containing the fuel source. I’d also point out, though, the vessel’s on its side, and it’s not designed to be on its side.
“Not to oversimplify this, with fuel vents and things of that nature, we’re going to get some product release. I would say that even when those are completely sealed off, and that’s certainly a step we’re working aggressively toward. If you think about taking a bottle you pour oil into, and maybe some residue on the side, and put that in the water, you’re going to get some sheen.”
Meanwhile, the U.S. Coast Guard has established a wide safety zone around the Golden Ray, which effectively closes the channel to shipping. At least six ships are waiting offshore and an auto carrier like the Golden Ray remains moored at the Colonel’s Island auto terminal.
Georgia Ports Authority spokesman Edward Fulford said he is unsure of how many vessels have been affected by the Sunday morning capsize of the Golden Ray.