BRUNSWICK, Ga. – More than 35,000 pounds of oiled sand has been collected by environmental cleanup teams after an oil leak into the St. Simons Sound from the Golden Ray, an overturned cargo ship being dismantled, the News4Jax I-TEAM learned Monday.
There are several more days of cleanup ahead, according to the St. Simons Incident Response.
The South Korean freighter capsized on Sept. 8, 2019, shortly after departing the Port of Brunswick. Salvage crews began slicing the ship into giant chunks for removal nine months ago, and they finished cutting away the sixth of eight sections Friday.
Oil gushed into the water Saturday when the towering crane straddling the shipwreck began lifting the 4-ton segment. The salvage team believes oil had collected in the ship’s ballast tanks and came out through holes drilled to drain water from the partly submerged segment, said Coast Guard Petty Officer 2nd Class Michael Himes, a command team spokesperson. The Associated Press reported that more oil gushed into the water Monday from the Golden Ray.
An approximately 2-mile stretch has been impacted, with the heavy oil is washing up on the beaches, in the marshes and along the shorelines.
“It’s the consistency of your children’s play slime stick. It’s not really a liquid,” said Fletcher Sams, executive director of the Altamaha Riverkeeper conservation group. “And as the weather heats up, it’ll spread more and get down to the sediment, so you’ve got a lot of clean up ahead of you”
Sams said the extensive pooling of the raw oil occurred during high tide, which pushed the oil up onto the shore and into the marshes. He said tar balls, however, are often buried deeper in the sand, making the cleanup even more difficult. That’s why he said he wants the state to conduct an environmental impact survey to see how much damage has been done.
“If this upsets you, please contact your state representatives, your state senators, the governor and tell them that we want a Natural Resource Damage Assessment as soon as possible,” Sams said.
Approximately 50 Coast Guard workers are using various cleanup techniques. They’re not only bagging the oiled sand but also laying down what’s called sorbent pads to absorb the oil. They are also spraying the affected marshes with an organic moss that reduces the likelihood for any oil to transfer to wildlife in the affected area.
Locals said they think the environmental impact is bad enough for the state to shut down the beaches to swimmers and sunbathers.
“I feel like they should close the beach because people should not be in the water,” said local Mollter Toler. “It’s just gross.”
But Himes said state health officials have assessed the environmental damage and decided to keep them open.
“The department of health and the department of natural resources coastal division, they make that call, and after assessing the shorelines, they deemed there’s not a significant risk to health,” Himes said.
As of Monday afternoon, responders had found only one animal, a seagull, partly coated with oil. Himes said the bird didn’t appear injured but was being taken to a raptor center to determine if it needed treatment.
The Coast Guard said the cleanup is going to take a long time because they can only do the work during a three- to six-hour window at high tides as the tide is going back out.
Salvage workers drained more than 320,000 gallons of oil mixed with water from the Golden Ray’s fuel tanks before demolition work began. Still, residual amounts of fuel remained. Another large oil leak occurred in early July. And officials said lingering fuel sparked by a cutting torch may have caused a fire that engulfed the shipwreck in May.
Nearly two years after the Golden Ray capsized, the job of removing it in giant pieces is nearing the home stretch. Once the leaking sixth section gets hauled away by a barge, one more cut is needed to separate what’s left of the ship into its final two segments.