The Georgia Environmental Protection Division is proposing to levy a $3 million fine on the owners of the shipwrecked Golden Ray for pollutants that leaked into St. Simons Sound. In this photo, a large section of the capsized cargo ship has been removed from the waterways. Stanley Dunlap/Georgia Recorder
This story was updated at 9 a.m. Nov. 30 with details about the fine from the Georgia Environmental Protection Division.
The state’s Environmental Protection Division is proposing a $3 million fine against a South Korean logistics company for polluting the sea and salt marshes on the Georgia coast after the Golden Ray car carrier capsized in St. Simons Sound on Sept. 8, 2019.
State environmental regulators are accepting public comments until Dec. 23 on their proposed consent order to penalize Hyundai Glovis Co. for discharging pollutants and debris without a permit in one of the largest maritime disasters in American history.
The $3 million fine would be a relatively small price compared to the cost of the snakebit shipwreck cleanup project, where estimates of the tab that will be footed by the company and insurer are in the $1 billion range. Environmentalists said Monday that the punishment from the fine is not nearly as significant as holding the company accountable for damages.
The approval order also says that the company will have to follow an approved Environmental Assessment and Response Plan after the Coast Guard-led incident response finishes the shipwreck response and overseeing pollution control. If Hyundai submits a plan that wins EDP approval for another environmental project, its fine could be reduced.
Susan Inman, of the Brunswick-based environmental group One Hundred Miles, said the ship’s oil leaks can have some lasting effects on estuaries and waterways in the area.
Although the Golden Ray has been removed from the water, there is still oil that seeps to the surface as debris is removed from the water, Inman said.
“We were pleasantly surprised that our regulatory division is pursuing a fine,” Inman said. “We just felt it should have been sooner.”
The removal of the massive car carrier is in its waning stages after two years of setbacks from oil spills, a fire, hurricanes and a change in contractors.
Federal investigations found vehicles loaded incorrectly caused the top-heavy ship to list allowing seawater to gush through an open door, sinking the 656-foot-long car carrier as it set sail for Baltimore out of the Port of Brunswick in the dark of night.
Fletcher Sams, executive director of the Altamaha Riverkeeper, said government agencies shouldn’t let Hyundai evade any responsibilities once the initial environmental cleanup is completed. It is imperative for the state to require a more comprehensive damage assessment, he added.
“In our industry it’s just an imaginary number they pulled out of a hat,” Sams said. “There’s no data. What we are concerned about is making sure the state has the resources they need to make sure the Sound is whole again. That’s very difficult to do if you don’t know how damaged the Sound is.”
EPD spokesman Kevin Chambers said that under the Water Quality Rules, a party can be held liable for up to $50,000 in fines each day for violations and those penalties can increase up to $100,000 a day for later separate violations up to a 12 month period.
The EDP proposed order notes that from Sept. 8, 2019 until Oct. 6, 2019, oil and debris released daily from the Golden Ray had a significant impact to the environment. The order also states that cutting and salvage operations from Nov. 6, 2020 to Oct. 24 resulted in daily releases of oil and debris.
“Though most of these later releases were minor, several large releases occurred from the lifting and loading of each section as well as other significant releases on or around June 2 and on or around July 1,” Chambers said.
Those who rely on waterways for their livelihood and others who want to protect coastal Georgia should comment on the proposed order, Inman said.Golden Ray is not the only industrial water polluter in Glynn County to be fined. Honeywell International proposed in 2019 to pay a $4 million fine to the state for cleanup of the LCP Chemicals Superfund site and for damage to recreational fisheries. The property was home to an oil refinery and a power plant and other polluters over much of the 20th century and contaminated waterways included the Brunswick River.
“All the fishermen have a voice in this. This is public water,” she said.
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