BRUNSWICK, Ga. – For nearly a month, a 656-foot vehicle transport vessel has been sitting overturned in the St. Simons Sound as response crews work on a salvage plan, as well as a strategy to safely remove fuel and oil from the ship, Officials said the operation is so complex they can't give a timetable for when it can be removed.
The St. Simons Sound Incident Unified Command is made up of the U.S. Coast Guard, Georgia Department of Natural Resources and Gallagher Marine Systems. The Unified Command is working to target and mitigate shoreline pollution, as well as make a plan to remove pollutants from the vessel.
Leaders of the command gave an update on the progress of the salvage operation Friday.
” This is a very high complex challenging response," said Chris Graff, with Gallagher Marine Systems. “The vessel is on its side it’s full of cargo that has cars it has a potential threat to the environment.
He said oil has been released into St. Simons Sound and divers have been plugging fuel vents to try to slow the release of fuel.
Graff said crews have been skimming oil in and outside of the Golden Ray and divers have been able to get into the engine room and remove fuel from two of the vessel's 24 tanks, but they have not been able to get into the cargo bay where the cars are stored. He said the cars also pose pollution concerns as the cargo ship remains on its side.
The Incident Unified Command had a marine chemist out on Wednesday to monitor the air quality of the Golden Ray. The chemist is using specialized equipment tests for hazards as response crews are working in and around the vessel, according to the Incident Unified Command.
Other photos from the Coast Guard show salvage crews descending a rope into an opening of the vessel. The Incident Unified Command said response teams are assisting in operating skimming equipment used to collect oil inside the engines. About 15,500 gallons of oil have been removed Friday.
Graff said he's really concerned about the environment and removing oil from the water.
Response teams are also watching the environmental impact and said its surveying the oil-impacted areas including the west bank of the Back River.
Various levels of oil and sheen have been spotted with most of the pollution near Bird Island, according to Graff. He said crews continue to monitor fuel and oil leaks along the shoreline, in and beyond St. Simon's Sound with 12 boats dedicated to that purpose, along with air support.
Responders are also accessing oil recovery pumps being used to remove fuel from the Golden Ray. The USCG said the pump is used for a process called hot-tapping, which is an industry-standard method of safely pumping fuel from a vessel.
There's currently a 150-yard safety zone around the cargo ship but the port is open to traffic and no vessels other than Coast Guard or other official cleanup boats are allowed within 3,000 feet of the area.
Graff said they are looking at the Golden Ray's sister ship in Chile as a guide to the best and safest way to move forward and mitigate environmental damage.
In all, the Incident Unified Command said more than 350 responders and nearly 70 vessels are working in response to the overturned ship including:
- 7 tugboats
- 2 fuel boats
- 8 barges inland
- 4 skimming vessels
- 3 skimmers
- 5,500 feet of boom
- 26,000 feet of stage boom if needed