Monday Isaias became just the first named storm to come close to St. Simons Sound since the Golden Ray capsized there last summer. And as hurricane season arrives, environmentalists are nervous about what’s inside the remaining wreckage.
The Golden Ray is a massive 656-foot-long cargo ship that set sail for Baltimore Sept. 8, 2019 with more than 4,000 Kias and Hyundais on board before it soon ran aground. And there it sits.
In preparation for Isaias, crews relocated tugs, barges and cranes used on the Golden Ray. The massive crane that will eventually handle the heavy lifting of the ship remains tied down by tugs off a port in Fernandina, Fla. The center of the storm stayed well offshore Monday as it headed north past the Georgia coast.
The Golden Ray, the cars and tens of thousands of gallons of oil were supposed to be gone by now.
The U.S. Coast Guard recently shut down work on the Golden Ray wreckage until October in hopes of waiting out the expected peak of the 2020 hurricane season. Environmental groups that worry about storm damage gained a powerful ally late last week. U.S. Sen. David Perdue fired off a letter to the U.S. Coast Guard objecting to the delay, while conceding that getting the Golden Ray out of the sound is a big challenge as COVID-19 infects workers and complicates the job.
“However, given the known risks associated with COVID-19, in addition to the importance of finishing work before hurricane season, I am perplexed as to why it took until late July to formulate this plan,” Perdue wrote.
A U.S. Coast Guard spokesman said an environmental protection barrier surrounding the ship will likely withstand heavy storms. The Coast Guard is part of a Unified Command overseeing the salvage project, along with the Georgia Department of Natural Resources and salvage contractor Gallagher Marine Systems.
The barrier consists of floating boom and netting stretching to the seafloor to capture debris, oil and other pollutants.
“During a hurricane, it’s designed to sustain severe weather as well as the significant tides that come in and out of the Sound,” said U.S. Coast Guard Petty Officer Michael Himes.
Pressing pause for two months, according to Himes, provides time to lessen the chances of another COVID-19 outbreak among the salvage crew and also avoids worker exposure during the worst of the hurricane season.
But Perdue says in his letter last week to Coast Guard Rear Admiral Eric Jones that leaving the wreckage in the sound for now is the preference of ship-owner Hyundai and needs further review.
Perdue also complains the Coast Guard didn’t have its COVID-19 mitigation plan ready until late July. Since January, the Coast Guard emphasized the importance of removing the ship before June 1 when the hurricane season started.
“With your most recent decision, Georgians now face the sobering fact that at best, the wreckage will likely remain in the St. Simons Sound into late 2020; and at worst, a major storm will upend all efforts and create an environmental catastrophe,” he said. “Neither option is acceptable, yet it is where we find ourselves because of the decisions that have been made.”
Environmental groups want a broad assessment of the damage done and threatened by the wreck of the Golden Ray. The Georgia Water Coalition listed the oily aftermath of the shipwreck among “Georgia’s Dirty Dozen” environmental concerns in its annual report.
Environmental groups, including the Altamaha Riverkeeper and One Hundred Miles, share some of the same concerns as Perdue. And they worry that when it comes time to cut up the ship the potential for environmental disaster hasn’t been properly assessed.
There’s also the long-term ecological ramifications should the ship be damaged in a storm or further down the line if cutting the ship into large sections causes a significant oil spill. By late September last year, several hundred thousand gallons of oil had been pumped from the ship. But the remaining vehicles on board and the ship itself contain oil and other environmental hazards.
The first contractor selected, maritime salvage company DonJon SMIT, is embroiled in a lawsuit against the U.S. Coast Guard, saying the newer process is much more likely to lead to a disaster. The Coast Guard and other members of the command changed salvage companies soon after DonJon started work last year, opting for slicing the ship into larger sections in what was intended to speed the project.
“We absolutely agree with Sen. Perdue’s statement and we share all of his concerns,” said Fletcher Sams, executive director of the Altamaha Riverkeeper. “Most importantly, this delay will further postpone the decision to complete a Natural Resources Damage Assessment so that stakeholders know the extent to which Hyundai should be held accountable.”
Coast Guard officials targeted September for the release of the wreck investigation into what caused the Golden Ray to capsize. The crew steered the ship through the sound after midnight, heading toward the Atlantic Ocean when it capsized. All crew members were rescued.
The ship removal stands to become one of the most expensive marine disasters in the nation’s history, likely costing hundreds of millions of dollars, a Gallagher Marine representative told Fox 28 Savannah in June. When the Exxon Valdez ran aground in Alaska’s Prince William Sound in 1989, it spilled 11 million gallons of oil and the company settled a suit for compensatory damages for $287 million, or $597 million in inflation-adjusted dollars.
The Oil Pollution Act of 1990 was Congress’ response to the Exxon Valdez wreck and the resulting environmental destruction. The act took decision-making power away from a ship’s owner and placed it with the federal government, through the Coast Guard.
The Coast Guard has disputed allegations from DonJon SMIT and others that it violated the act when it switched contractors.
Even as the Golden Ray now appears likely to remain in the place where it capsized last September for more than a year, shipping at the Brunswick port isn’t hurt, officials say.
“We’ve had 24-hour operations in the Port of Brunswick since November or December last year,” Himes said.