Capsized cargo ship causes environmental concerns

What appears to be oil from flipped cargo ship in water

By Tarik Minor - Anchor, I-TEAM reporter, Roxy Tyler - Web producer

BRUNSWICK, Ga. - Beachgoers who plan to visit the beach on St. Simons or Jekyll Islands are urged to check the water for any signs of oil before swimming.

The Coastal Health District issued a swimming advisory after a cargo ship capsized in the St. Simons Sound early Sunday morning.

Thursday, the advisory was modified to urge swimmers to visually check the
water before diving in. A similar advisory was also applied to fish consumption.

The Coastal Resources Division of the Department of Natural Resources conducted water quality sampling to ensure the safety of shellfish harvesting beds and swimming off the beaches. Although oil has not been seen on the beaches, the health district is asking visitors to follow these precautionary guidelines:

  • If you see a sheen of oil on the water's surface, don't swim. Contact with oil could cause skin and eye irritation.
  • If there is no visible oil on the water, then swim or wade at your discretion. Stay alert for changing conditions.
  • If a fish smells or tastes like oil, or you can see oil on the fish, do not eat it.

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"We also have pollution mitigation efforts in the works. We have established a unified command for (putting) mitigation strategies into effect. The unified command consists of U.S. Coast Guard, Georgia Department of Natural Resources and Gallagher Marine Services representing the responsible party," said Norm Witt, commander of the Coast Guard's Marine Safety Unit. 

He adds they have a plan of action in place now.

"Currently, we're mobilizing resources, activating our area contingency plan and, uh taking all steps necessary to mitigate potential pollution. In addition to the pollution, we're also looking at the salvage piece ... and again, to uh, our strategy to that, we've implemented a unified command to effect salvage as quickly as possible," Witt said.

News4Jax aviation expert Ed Booth flew over and snapped photos of what appeared to be an oil slick from the barge accident.

"I looked out the window, and there it was. I took my cellphone out and snapped a couple of photographs of it from 4,000 feet.  It appears to me that oil is leaking from the vessel. And, at this time, it's streaming to the south towards the northern tip of Jekyll Island. The next body of land it would hit would be Cumberland Island," Booth said. "This could be a real environmental problem, if not disaster, due to the oil leaking from this vessel."

The 656-foot, 71,000-ton vessel, M/V Golden Ray, was on fire and the Coast Guard rescued four crew members trapped inside, according to Coast Guard Lt. Christopher Pace of the Coast Guard's Marine Safety Unit in Savannah.

Officials at the incident command center have worked to plug the ship's vent stacks to prevent any additional release of oil. Absorbent booms were placed to soak up most of the oil immediately around vessel, the Coastal Health District said. Booms were also placed at the entrance of nearby creeks to protect local oyster beds.

The Coastal Resources Division of DNR will conduct water quality sampling to ensure the safety of shellfish harvesting beds and swimming beaches. Get shellfish harvest and beach closure updates here.

The Georgia Environmental Protection Division, a branch the DNR, has been notified of the capsizing and is monitoring the situation.

The Golden Ray is a roll-on, roll-off ship used to transport vehicles. There were reportedly 4,200 vehicles aboard the ship when it capsized.

Fisherman and boaters are very concerned about the environmental impact from the overturned ship.

Calvin Collins, a tour guide who owns a private island not far from where the ship is lying on its side, is worried any damage to the local oyster beds here could be a disaster. 

"If those gets damaged, it's possible they won't hold the reef together," Collins said. "What's going to happen to the area? There's a lot of oil and fuel, and a certain type of fuel called sea fuel, it's thick and goes to the bottom. We're all concerned here in the local tourism business."

Collins worries the cleanup could take weeks or even months, and with the incoming tides, he says comes the possibility of environmental pollution. He's also worried about the redfish, dolphins and manatees that frequent these waters daily. He fears any pollution could have a lasting effect right before oyster season.

Collins was watching Monday afternoon's incoming tide closely for any signs of water discoloration or pollution.

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