A massive crane intended to help lift pieces of the shipwrecked Golden Ray off of its St. Simons Sound resting spot is finally scheduled to arrive in Georgia for a long delayed removal operation.
The U.S.Coast Guard-led Unified Command said Friday that, weather permitting, the heavy-lift catamaran should finish its trek from Port of Fernandina, Fla. to the Port of Brunswick entry by Tuesday, where crews are set to cut the Golden Ray into eight sections to be hauled away on barges.
Hundreds of cars and tens of thousands of gallons of oil remain on the car carrier that overturned in the channel when the crew lost control of the 656-foot-long cargo ship on Sept. 8, 2019 with more than 4,000 Kias and Hyundais aboard.
The largest heavy-lift vessel ever built in the United States is arriving a couple of weeks later after engineers needed more time to review the anchoring system that stabilizes the shipwreck.
U.S. Sen. David Perdue and U.S. Rep. Buddy Carter, who represents a coastal district, fired off a letter this week letting the Coast Guard’s Admiral know that they’ve lost patience with repeated delays and setbacks to the salvage operation.
“Throughout this year, the Coast Guard and the Unified Command have referenced the complications of standing up and carrying out different aspects of its removal plan” the letter says. “While we appreciate the complexity of this operation, as well as issues caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, whether it’s the containment system, the difficulty in getting equipment onsite, or the anchoring system, we are increasingly discouraged by this project’s delays.”
Meanwhile, the capsize ship remained a prominent eyesore along an environmentally sensitive stretch of Georgia coastline.
The Coast Guard said earlier this year the ship would be gone by June 1, but later pushed back the timeline by months to lessen the chances of another COVID-19 outbreak among the salvage crew and to avoid the peak of hurricane season in August and September.
Officials in charge of the salvage are trying to assure everyone affected by the delayed salvage operation that the pace will pick up next week when the big floating crane is on the job.
“It’s a very capable asset implementing the latest in heavy-lifting technology for marine environments,” said Cmdr. Efren Lopez, federal on-scene coordinator. “The vessel is a critical component to our removal plan that ensures the safety of our responders and the public as we move forward and remove the Golden Ray.”
Moving forward can’t come soon enough for Carter and Perdue. They want detailed explanations for any new delays and weekly progress reports. Perdue also chastised the Coast Guard in July for ineffectiveness.
Environmental groups, including the Altamaha Riverkeeper and One Hundred Miles, worry about an oil spill that might damage nearby salt marshes and sea life if a major storm hits near the wreck or when the Golden Ray is cut into pieces for removal.
Some of the setbacks should not have occurred if the salvage operation complied with the Oil Pollution Act of 1990, Congress’ response to the Exxon Valdez wreck that gave the Coast Guard decision-making power when overseeing potentially catastrophic oil spills, Altamaha Riverkeeper Executive Director Fletcher Sams said.
“The unforeseen delays and contractor changes are the very things that the Oil Pollution Act is supposed to protect against,” he said. “We agree that additional oversight is needed and believe that additional scrutiny will conclude that there needs to be a Natural Resources Damage Assessment of the St. Simons Sound.”
For more than a year, officials involved in the salvage operation kept under wraps what caused the Golden Ray to capsize soon after it left the Port of Brunswick about midnight. A September public hearing revealed that unstable loading caused the ship to list after leaving the Port of Brunswick and likely led to the Golden Ray tipping over. Once the ship started to capsize, it probably took on water through an open pilot door causing to overturn faster, according to hearing testimony.