Long after ship overturns near Brunswick, oil is surfacing

Golden Ray remains on its side in St. Simons Sound

People who live nearby are seeing a significant environmental impact and are concerned the agencies overseeing the cleaning are downplaying it.

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – In the 12 days since a cargo ship carrying more than 4,000 vehicles capsized in the St. Simons Sound,  precautions have been taken against any potential environmental threat to the inlets and the nearby beaches. Yet in recent days, several instances of possible pollution have been reported to the National Response Center.

Environmentalists and local residents are documenting what appears to be oil spills from the Golden Ray, and according to them, the environmental impact reaches farther than they initially expected. 

"I was shocked," Ginny Worthington said Friday. "I walk the beach all the time as a photographer. I was shocked. It's a mess."

After not seeing much environmental impact, Worthington took photos Thursday evening of oil washing up on St. Simon's Island about 2 miles away from where the ship turned on its side as it was sailing out of the Port of Brunswick. Worthington said this particular patch was 20-30 feet long and 12 feet wide. She touched it to confirm it was oil.

"I don't know where this slab of oil came from," Worthington said. "I've never seen anything like it. I can only assume, since we have the wreck out there, that's where it came from."

Worthington reported the oil to the National Response Center, and she's not the only one documenting potential environmental hazards. 

"I was just told it was normal to break this up, and for it come back quickly like that." 

This comes as the Unified Command responsible for salvaging the ship and protecting the environment released an update saying, "No impacts have been detected to date," and "Response teams continue to canvas the shoreline and have identified minimal to no environmental impact at this time."

Video taken by the Fletcher Sams, the executive director of the Altamaha Riverkeeper organization, shows oil 10.5 miles away from the Golden Ray in an area called the Back River. Sams said he told the Coast Guard and Gallagher Marine, which is contracted by the owners of the Golden Ray to contain any possible pollution and run the salvage operation what he found. Sams said both agencies told them they would not test what he found, saying it was normal.

"What I'm seeing is not square with what the public is being told," Sams said.

Sams said he has asked marine scientists with the University of Georgia to test the water, the sediments and the wildlife that may be affected.

Sams is worried about the responding agencies not being transparent with the public.

"I'm concerned about who is leading the investigation," Sams said. "If Gallagher Marine, who is paying them, and why are they investigating that way?"

Sams said he's also concerned the testing isn't being conducted during low tides, but instead at high tides when the pollution may be hidden. 

"We are seeing sheening in the water that is far away from the ship. We've got concerns about
four kinds of fuel: gasoline, diesel and two different kinds of bunker fuel, and they all travel through the channels at different speeds, and it could travel different distances."

About the Authors:

Tarik anchors the 4, 5:30 and 6:30 p.m. weekday newscasts and reports with the I-TEAM.

Digital election producer in 2022. He created WJXT.com in 1995 and managed The Local Station's website through 2021.