Crews have been working since Saturday to clean up a discharge of oil from the capsized Golden Ray off St. Simons Island, a spill that has prompted concerns from environmentalists about the potential impacts on the coast. 

The discharge occurred after demolition crews finished separating the ship’s sixth of eight sections on July 30. The environmental protection barrier set up around the ship blocked oil that was on the water’s surface, but as the tide changed, it washed under the barrier. 

A band of oil material washed into marsh grasses, riprap and beach sand along St. Simons Island, according to St. Simons Sound Incidence Response. There have also been some impacts just south on Jekyll Island beaches. The response group consists of the U.S. Coast Guard, the Georgia Environmental Protection Division and Gallagher Marine Systems and is tasked with managing the ship’s removal.

“There’s about two and a half miles of shoreline on St. Simons Island that has been impacted,” said Fletcher Sams, executive director of the Altamaha Riverkeeper environmental watchdog group. “Some areas heavier than others, but all pretty heavy.”

The discharge isn’t the first from the cargo ship since it capsized while carrying about 4,200 vehicles in September 2019, but Susan Inman, coastal advocate with the environmental nonprofit One Hundred Miles, said this is the biggest discharge so far. 

U.S. Coast Guard Petty Officer Michael Himes, spokesman for the disaster response, said they don’t yet know how much oil was discharged. Inman said an estimated 44,000 gallons of oil were still on board the ship as of December 2019, just after over 300,000 gallons of an oil and water mixture were removed from the ship. 

Approximately 70 people — with more on the way — were helping with cleanup as of Tuesday, according to a press release. Crews are using various techniques to remove the oil, including using hand tools to pick up oil off the sand and using special booms designed to absorb pooled oil, Himes said. 

As of Monday, more than 35,000 pounds of oiled sand had been collected. 

“The goal is to not cause further damage to the environment by leveraging natural and low-impact oil treatment techniques,” Himes said. 

Himes said the ship could discharge oil again, which is why they will maintain a “pollution response posture” through the end of the ship’s removal. Completing the removal could take five to fifteen weeks or longer. 

Inman said she is concerned about the impacts the oil could have on both the environment and coastal communities near the site. 

“Leaking oil is unacceptable for our community, and it must be stopped,” she said. 

Health, environmental impacts

Photo courtesy of Susan Inman/One Hundred Miles.

Georgia’s Coastal Health District warned beachgoers to watch for any signs of oil and to use their best judgement before swimming. They issued a general swimming alert for the area back in September 2019 alerting beachgoers of the prolonged threats the capsized ship could have. 

“There isn’t a set expiration for the alert, because as long as the ship remains in the channel there is a risk of oil and other pollutants in the water,” Ginger Heidel, risk communicator with the Georgia Coastal Health District, said. 

Heidel said beaches aren’t closed due to the discharge because any oil that is present will be visible and avoidable, and any exposure to the oil would not be prolonged.

“A beachgoer who is exposed to the oil can wash it off with soap and water, and brief contact would not likely cause any short- or long-term health effects,” she said. 

Inman said the Coast Guard is present at the site, handing out flyers to inform beachgoers about the discharge. In pictures taken Monday, some beachgoers could be seen wading in the water and lounging on the sand near cleanup crews. 

According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Office of Response and Restoration, oil can harm animals by impairing their ability to fly or swim, and can restrict the ability of plants to perform photosynthesis. On St. Simons Island, oil has been seen on marsh grass and crustaceans, but no injured or oiled animals have been reported. 

Sams said oil is a known carcinogen to animals and can trigger illness. But he said the true environmental impact of the oil, as well as other pollutants from the ship, won’t be fully known unless a Natural Resources Damage Assessment is conducted. He said it would also answer questions like how much oil was discharged, how much cleanup will be required and what the impact on the local economy has been. 

“If the authorities refuse to do one, whatever damage is out there is just going to be there and no one’s going to be accountable for it,” he said. 

Removal progress 

Work to cut and remove the capsized Golden Ray started in November 2020, after delays due to COVID-19, last year’s hurricane season and engineering problems. The ship caught on fire earlier this year during cutting and removal efforts, and is now on track to become the most expensive ship salvage operation in history, according to First Coast News. 

The ship is being removed in eight pieces. Each section is cut and then removed separately. All sections will eventually be transported to the Modern American Recycling Services facility in Gibson, Louisiana.  

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The four outer sections (sections one, two, seven and eight) of the ship were removed first. Section three of the ship was cut and removed in early July, just before Hurricane Elsa came rolling through the state. Section six was cut on Friday, prompting the oil discharge, but has yet to be removed. Oil also leaked when section three was cut and removed. 

Inman said because the outer sections of the ship were removed first, oil and pollutants could more easily escape the ship. 

“There’s no way to control these contaminants,” she said. 

Hines said there are four steps left to finish removing the ship: removing section six, preparing equipment at the site to cut sections four and five and then cutting, and removing sections four and five. 

Completing these steps could take five to 15 weeks or longer, Hines said. Severe weather systems could especially delay the progress. 

Inman said she thinks cutting and removing smaller, horizontal sections, rather than large vertical sections, would have been a better way to remove the ship since the hull would remain to catch pollutants. Engineers argued that removing larger sections would be quicker. 

“The Golden Ray has been a fixture on our landscape for almost two years, and we’ve watched with curiosity and disappointment as the contractors execute this plan to remove it from our river,” she said. “We see that they have barriers and boats but despite their efforts, pollution of all types is still washing up on our beaches.”