For The Record

Changing tides spread oil from Golden Ray wreck to St. Simons beaches, marshes

By: - August 5, 2021 7:14 pm

Clean-up crews apply sphagnum moss, which is meant to promote the natural breakdown process of oil while reducing the likelihood of any oil transferring to wildlife. Environmentalists have raised concerns about the tactic. St. Simons Sound Incident response photo

Crews are still trying to get a handle on a “significant” oil spill coming from the massive car carrier that wrecked in St. Simon’s Sound nearly two years ago.

The oil spill happened after workers dismantled a section of the Golden Ray nearly a week ago and the tide swept the oil under the environmental protection barrier that is set up around the ship.

The South Korean ship, which was large enough to haul 4,000 Kias and Hyundais, has been leaking oil off and on since it capsized after leaving the Port of Brunswick in September 2019. St. Simons Sound Incident Unified Command, the multiagency command in charge of the Golden Ray’s removal, described this spill as a “significant discharge of oil.”

It will take time, though, to quantify the extent of the oil spill, said Michael Himes, who is the spokesman for the unified command. The oily water mixture is being collected through multiple methods, such as oil skimmers and a floating vacuum, and will be sent to a facility for processing.

“Each discharge is significant in its own way,” Himes said Thursday afternoon. “The quantity of what we’ve observed sort of visually near the section is larger than previous discharges near the section.

An oil recovery team uses a floating vacuum attachment connected to green containers to pump out oil that discharged from Section Six during lifting operations on Wednesday. St. Simons Sound Incident response photo

“But a part of what makes this kind of recovery very difficult is really when the tides change and when we have oil that entrains beyond the barrier – when it does get into a shifting tide, not when the tide is flat, but when it’s shifting – it can be it can be difficult for our on-water mitigation crews to contain.”

Himes said the salvage team has shifted its strategy to gradually lifting the section in hopes of controlling the source of the oil, which he said appears to be somewhere under the severed section of the ship.

“With each lift, we’ve been able to get the section a little bit higher before a discharge happens, and now progressively, when the discharge happens, we have more oil recovery assets that are able to sort of increase capacity of recovery,” he said.

But this also means progress will be slow. The spill comes several weeks after the wreckage caught on fire, causing another delay.

“Removing this section will take time and we appreciate the patience and support of the community as we move forward,” Incident Commander Chris Graff of Gallagher Marine Systems said in a statement. Gallagher Marine Systems is the salvage contractor.

The oil has again reached sections of the beach and marsh grasses. Several Royal tern chicks were observed Wednesday coated in the oil on Bird Island but were mobile and appeared fine, although wildlife experts will continue to monitor them. Himes described the normally white birds as being “stained brown.”

“They do stand out from the rest of the flock,” he said.

Fletcher Sams, executive director of the Altamaha Riverkeeper, which is an environmental group focused on protecting Georgia waters from pollution, questioned whether there is enough personnel and equipment on hand to stop more oil from reaching the shoreline.

And he said he is concerned about the powdery sphagnum moss being spread along the beaches to limit the amount of wildlife that is soaked with oil.

“What happens is that you spray it on grass, you spray it on rocks, and when the tide cycle comes in, it’ll dislodge the oil off of the grass or the rocks, and then the oiled sphag sorb just pours out back into the ocean,” Sams said.

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Jill Nolin
Jill Nolin

Jill Nolin has spent nearly 15 years reporting on state and local government in four states, focusing on policy and political stories and tracking public spending. She has spent the last five years chasing stories in the halls of Georgia’s Gold Dome, earning recognition for her work showing the impact of rising opioid addiction on the state’s rural communities. She is a graduate of Troy University.