Work crews are wrapping up the pile-driving portion of the first phase of the last the public will see of the shipwrecked Golden Ray in the St. Simons Sound, according to Unified Command.
And federal court won’t be stopping the work anytime soon. In U.S. District Court in Brunswick Tuesday, Judge Lisa Godbey Wood denied an injunction sought by the original emergency response contractor for the Golden Ray, Donjon-SMIT.
As of Wednesday, crews with Weeks Marine had driven 62 of 80 total piles in the sound’s sandy bottom, said the U.S. Coast Guard’s Monika Spies, spokeswoman for Unified Command. The 140-foot long steel piles are 48 inches in diameter and are being hammered roughly half their length into the sand bed. The piles are being placed in pairs, and in groupings of four in some spots, to support the double layer of mesh netting that will form the environmental protection barrier around the 656-foot Golden Ray.
“It’s kind of more of the same this week,” Spies said. “We’re still working on that environmental protection barrier.”
The ship has sat half submerged in the sound since Sept. 8 of last year, when it overturned on its port side while heading out to sea with a cargo of 4,200 vehicles. The 33-acre environmental protection barrier will surround the ship to protect the marine environment of the St. Simons Sound when work begins as early as June to cut the ship into eight pieces with a giant chain saw.
The barrier is intended to catch any of the several thousand vehicles inside the cargo hold that might fall loose during the cutting process. The net also will catch any other objects that shake loose, and a boom barrier lining the surface of the barrier is intended to contain any oils or other pollutants that leak out during the process.
Issues raised by the coronavirus pandemic have not slowed progress on the shipwreck’s salvage operations, Spies said. However, Unified Command has taken measures to protect its crews from the spread of the virus, she said.
“So far we haven’t seen any challenges that have been a major hurdle for us,” Spies said. “We are modifying the way we as a team of responders are working. We’ve implemented ‘teleworking’ where possible. We’re practicing social distancing and reducing meeting sizes. And we’ve really put an even stronger emphasis on hygiene. Hand washing regularly and washing down all hard surfaces with disinfectants thoroughly and often. Unified Command is certainly concerned about the health and well-being of the community and our responders. It’s definitely being looked at.”
Once all of the support pilings are in place, the mesh netting will be installed. The net will consist of a series of panels, stretched from one set of support piles to the next, Spies said. Crews hope to have the environmental protection barrier in place by the end of May, Spies said.
Then T&T Salvage will move in with the VB 10,000, the enormous, towering dual-hulled crane barge that will do the cutting and lifting to remove the Golden Ray. The arching vessel rises to 248 feet, higher even than the road surface of the nearby Sidney Lanier Bridge. The crane will employ a giant chainsaw to make seven cuts, removing slices of the ship — each weighing between 2,700 and 4,100 tons. The crane barge will then lift and load each piece onto a specially-designed barge with high walls to prevent pollutant runoff from the deck.
The pieces will be taken to a recycling facility in Louisiana. T&T Salvage, the contractor hired by the ship’s owner, hopes to have the bulk of the ship removed before peak hurricane season, which typically runs from August through October.
The VB 10,000 is based in New Orleans and will be towed here. It will enter the environmental protection barrier through a gate.
“We hope to have it done by the peak of hurricane season,” Spies said. “She (the VB 10,000) is not under way yet. Once she is under way, we will have a better idea of the project startup date for the cutting.”
Donjon-SMIT sought the now failed injunction to stop the ongoing salvage operation, which is being handled by T&T Salvage.
Donjon-SMIT was the emergency responder for ship’s owner Hyundai Glovis at the time of the shipwreck. Donjon-SMIT took part in the rescue of all 24 crew aboard the capsized ship and conducted cleanup and oil removal operations over the next several months.
However, early this year Hyundai Glovis elected to contract with T&T Salvage for the ship removal operation. Donjon-SMIT sued the U.S. Coast Guard, saying it neglected its responsibilities under the federal Oil Pollution Act of 1990 by allowing Hyundai Glovis to choose another contractor. Donjon-SMIT further predicted the method proposed by T&T Salvage would cause environmental harm to the St. Simons Sound.
In her ruling, Wood wrote that “for the court to grant such extraordinary relief” of a preliminary injunction four essential elements must be established — “a likelihood of success on the merits of the overall case, irreparable injury, the threatened injury outweighs the harm the preliminary injunction would cause the other litigants and the preliminary injunction would not be averse to the public interest.”
Donjon-SMIT had some of those factors in its favor. Wood’s ruling said the plaintiff’s case could possibly, but not likely, be successful on its own merits, that they would likely suffer irreparable harm and that the balance of harm may weigh in their favor.
The sticking point came down to public interest, with the ruling stating “granting this preliminary injunction would be averse to the public interest” citing that it would delay the dismantling process further into the 2020 hurricane season and likely into 2021.
During the delay, the Golden Ray would continue to deteriorate and pose an even greater danger to the area.
“ As long as it remains in the St. Simons Sound, this community’s waterways, coastline, and various important forms of marine life face an imminent environmental threat. Time compounds that threat,” the ruling stated.