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Judge won’t halt salvage of capsized ship in Brunswick channel

Oct. 21 photo of the removal of oil
Oct. 21 photo of the removal of oil (Altamaha Riverkeeper)

BRUNSWICK, Ga. – A federal judge ruled she will not halt removal of a capsized cargo ship along the Georgia coast while a salvage company that lost the job to a competitor sues the U.S. Coast Guard.

The decision by U.S. District Court Judge Lisa Godbey Wood said an injunction delaying work to dismantle the South Korean freighter Golden Ray would be “averse to the public interest.” The ship with 4,200 cars still in its cargo decks has been beached off St. Simons Island since September. Experts concluded the wreck will have to be cut into pieces.

“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,” Wood said in her ruling Tuesday. “Time compounds that threat.”

The salvage firm Donjon-SMIT filed suit in February after the Coast Guard allowed the ship’s owner to replace the company with a competitor willing to remove the ship in larger chunks. By allowing the switch, the lawsuit said, the Coast Guard violated the 1990 Oil Pollution Act that requires shipowners to designate salvage responders in advance.

The judge acknowledged in her ruling that Donjon-SMIT faces irreparable financial losses as salvage operations move forward. But she rejected the company’s argument that the Coast Guard officer overseeing the multi-agency response team abused his authority.

Wood also noted that Donjon-SMIT had retreated from a claim in its lawsuit that its competitor’s plan to remove the Golden Ray in huge chunks of up to 4,100 tons would cause an “environmental catastrophe.” A Donjon-SMIT official later testified in court that his company, while preferring a smaller-scale method, would have used the same technique if the owner insisted.

The Golden Ray overturned Sept. 5 soon after leaving the Port of Brunswick. The ship’s 24 crew members were all successfully rescued.

Donjon-SMIT’s replacement, T&T Salvage, plans to cut the ship into eight giant pieces, using a towering crane to lift each section onto a barge.

Crews have been working since February to prepare the Golden Ray by surrounding it with a mesh barrier to contain any cars or other debris falling into the water during demolition.

Work on the barrier continues with crew members taking extra precautions during the coronavirus pandemic that’s shut down much of the U.S., said Coast Guard Petty Officer 2nd Class Monika Spies, spokeswoman for the multi-agency team coordinating the salvage efforts.

The response team had hoped to have ship’s large sections removed before hurricane season starts June 1. Spies said Thursday the goal is now to remove it “by the peak of hurricane season.” The most active period of the Atlantic hurricane season typically begins in August.