Crews are back to work cutting up a section of the shipwrecked Golden Ray that contains thousands of gallons of fuel as the extensive salvage operation in St. Simons Sound seems doomed to stretch into another Atlantic hurricane season.

This story also appeared in Georgia Recorder

Nearly a year after the U.S. Coast Guard and other members of the salvage team expected to complete the removal of the massive capsized car carrier from the shipping channel outside the Port of Brunswick, delays caused by weather, COVID-19 and snafus still plague the project. Environmentalists say they’re not surprised the exhaustive undertaking continues facing obstacles that place the surrounding habitat in danger.

Since the early hours of Sept. 8, 2019, the 656-foot-long cargo ship has lodged in the sand off St. Simons Island where it capsized soon after setting sail for Baltimore with more than 4,000 Kias and Hyundais on board.

A massive floating crane arrived last fall to cut the ship into sections to be hauled away, but that plan hasn’t stayed on schedule any better than the rest of the salvage plan. The removal operation resumed last week after crews added a stronger cutting chain and made other adjustments as response teams watched over oil and debris spills and natural resource advisors monitor potential environmental harm.

If all goes well, it will still take at least several more months before the ship is completely removed from its high-profile perch near the shoreline. The process could be complicated by severe weather when hurricane season rolls around again June 1 and tidal shifts pose a threat to the safety of workers at the floating salvage operation, said U.S. Coast Guard Petty Officer Michael Himes.

The Coast Guard is part of a Unified Command overseeing the salvage project, along with the Georgia Department of Natural Resources and salvage contractor Gallagher Marine Systems. 

“While we anticipate several more months of wreck removal operations which includes the eventual demobilization of the wreck site infrastructure, our goal is to remain steady and to continue ensuring the safety of our personnel and the public while safeguarding the environment and the shipping channel until the eventual end of all response activities regardless of the time that it takes,” Himes said.

The ship, with its belly full of oil and other pollutants, is now about to weather a third hurricane season that lasts until November. 

Car debris from the shipwrecked Golden Ray washed upon a St. Simons mud flat on April 8, 2021. In the background, a massive crane hovers over the car carrier as crews continue the exhaustive removal that’s likely to continue into upcoming hurricane season. Credit: Altamaha Riverkeeper

The first contractor hired for the project, Donjon-SMIT, planned to cut the ship up in smaller sections before the ship’s owners and the Coast Guard switched to T&T Salvage, which offered a controversial plan that called for removing larger sections at a time than a competitor. Cutting the ship into bigger pieces, which started in November, was supposed to be faster.

The project has faced setbacks caused by broken chains, it taking longer than anticipated to move heavy equipment, a two-month pause for coronavirus outbreaks and other problems.

Altamaha Riverkeeper Executive Director Fletcher Sams said environmentalists are worried that the chunk of the ship salvage crews are working on now can’t be cut while keeping the 44,000 gallons of oil in the fuel lines from spilling into the waterways.

By last September, crews had pumped several hundred thousand gallons of oil from the ship, but that still left enough oil in the remaining vehicles on board and the vessel itself to present environmental hazards.  

“While the current contractor seems confident that they will be able to protect the shoreline, they were also confident that the ship would be removed by July 2020, that each cut would take 24 hours, and that the environmental protection barrier would prevent oil from escaping, none of which has come close to fruition,” Sams said.

The drawn-out salvage operation also has some locals upset and worried about the potential long-term repercussions to a diverse ecosystem at Georgia’s popular tourist destination.

“It will have taken up to two years from the day The Golden Ray capsized to its final removal,” said Ken Jacobsen, St. Simons Island resident and leadership consultant and executive coach. “That’s way too long to have stained the beauty of our islands and to have presented an ongoing environmental hazard to our waters, marshes and shores. We’re all beyond ready to see her gone.”

In recent weeks, cars, bumpers and other auto parts have tumbled out of the ship. 

That can be expected with extreme currents and other natural forces complicating the job, said Scott Jackson, with Gallagher Marine Systems, the St. Simons Sound Incident Response environmental lead.

A debris removal team is surveying the environmental protection barrier surrounding the ship and traveling by foot, air and boat to pick up the debris that washes up on the beaches of St. Simons Island and nearby Jekyll Island, he said. 

“Teams collect all debris on the beach, not just shipwrecked debris,” Jackson said. “That debris is then taken back to one of our main staging areas, sorted and disposed of accordingly.”

The repeated delays led to Republican U.S. Rep. Buddy Carter and then-Sen. David Perdue firing off a letter in October letting the Coast Guard’s admiral know that they had lost patience with the salvage operation. 

Carter, who represents a coastal district, is pleased with the current pace after visiting the wreck in March. And a spokesman for Democratic Sen. Jon Ossoff said that their office is in close contact with Coast Guard officials about Golden Ray.

“To ensure the project stays on track and to avoid any further delays due to COVID, I helped secure COVID vaccines for those working on the removal of the Golden Ray,” Carter said in a statement. “This will ensure the safety of workers while preventing any significant work stoppages.” 

According to a Coast Guard analysis of the wreck, the car carrier likely capsized in 2019 after leaving the Port of Brunswick because unstable loading left it susceptible to tipping over.

The ship removal stands to become one of the most expensive marine disasters in the nation’s history, likely costing hundreds of millions of dollars, according to a Gallagher Marine representative. When the Exxon Valdez ran aground in Alaska’s Prince William Sound in 1989, it spilled 11 million gallons of oil, and the company settled a suit for compensatory damages for $287 million, or $597 million in inflation-adjusted dollars.

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