Did Tropical Storm Elsa make Golden Ray environmental issues worse?

Altamaha Riverkeeper, Fletcher Sams joins us to discuss Elsa's impact on the existing environmental problems from the stranded wreckage of the Golden Ray.

ST. SIMONS SOUND, Ga. – Environmentalists are working to determine if Tropical Storm Elsa worsened existing problems resulting from the stranded wreckage of the Golden Ray.

The containment booms around the shipwrecked cargo were removed before Elsa’s arrival. And environmentalists understand that the move was necessary but worry it may have led to more environmental issues brought about by the tropical storm’s fury.

“We are worried that there was a lot of fuel in the water already and there is no protection of these environmentally sensitive areas that were previously contained with this containment boom,” said Fletcher Sams, the Altamaha Riverkeeper. “We want to see what impacts may be out there.

“We want to see if there’s any new oiling,” said Sams. “We were seeing fuel in the water as late as Tuesday. So, when they removed the booms, there likely still would have been fuel in the water.”

The vessel has been shipwrecked since Sept. 8, 2019. It overturned while heading out to sea with a cargo of 4,200 vehicles. While crews have been dismantling it and efforts were made to minimize environmental impact, oil has leaked into nearby ocean waters and onto area beaches.

With Elsa, there were no mitigation teams standing by when the storm moved through. The Altamaha Riverkeeper is concerned environmentally sensitive areas, places where birds nest and areas where oil has already leaked may be further compromised.

“There is not much you can do for oiled grass except remove it,” Sams said. “What they have been doing is spraying a chemical on it that causes the oil to drop down into the sediment so that the birds stay unoiled, but that creates a new problem with aquatic life.

Environmentalists are working to determine if Tropical Storm Elsa worsened existing problems resulting from the stranded wreckage of the Golden Ray.

“There is no removal with this application technique that they are doing. They are just transferring it from one place to another in the environment,” according to Sams.

Crews initially opted for a riskier demolition plan that was designed to have the ship removed by the 2020 hurricane season. Here it is 2021 and what promises to be a very active hurricane season -- and it is just beginning. We have already seen five named storms. Sams worries the environmental issues in Southeast Georgia might only get worse.

“The first play to remove the ship was to cut open the skin of the ship, remove all of the contaminants … and the cargo, and then dismantle (it) in small sections using the outside skin of the ship to contain any of these contaminants,” Sams said. “Well, that was going to take four months and that was the beginning of 2020. They went with a much riskier plan that is being enacted now to shave off a month to beat hurricane season in 2020. Here we are in the middle of hurricane season in 2021 -- 17 months later and it’s still almost a little over halfway completed and all of the risks that were outlined in that debate about which plan to go to are now coming to fruition,” Sams said.

Sams worries more problems are on the horizon.

“Even after these two major spills, we are not seeing additional assets sent to the area and if we know that the EP barrier is not working because oil is escaping that and we know that there is not enough assets to contain the oil that is getting outside the EPB because it is hitting our shorelines,” he said. “Then why are we still allowing them to operate under the same plan that has already failed twice in about a month?”

Sams said it’s time for the Coast Guard and the Georgia Department of Natural Resources to start holding someone accountable. He intimated that might be the owners of the Golden Ray and the company charged with dismantling the wreckage.

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