For The Record

Golden Ray blaze creates new pollution threat off Georgia’s coast

By: - May 14, 2021 6:30 pm

A live Facebook feed shows smoke rising from the wreck of the Golden Ray.

This story was updated 4:30 p.m. Monday May 17.

Engineers are assessing the damage after the shipwrecked Golden Ray caught fire Friday afternoon, sending billowing black smoke up over St. Simons Sound.

No injuries were reported and all crew working to dismantle the 656-foot-long car carrier appear to be accounted for, according to the U.S. National Guard and St. Simons Sound Incident Response.

“A fire began on the wreck of the Golden Ray this afternoon,” the St. Simons Sound Incident Response said in a statement Friday. “Responders were conducting pre-cutting operations and actively using fire suppression systems as a preventative measure when the fire began. Firefighting vessels are on scene. Safety personnel are conducting community air monitoring.”

Environmentalists say the biggest threat from the fire could be the pollutants that leak  into the water.

At the last estimate, there were 44,000 gallons of fuel in the ship along with hundreds of cars that were its cargo. The Golden Ray capsized off the Georgia coast near Brunswick in 2019.

“You have everything from the plastics in the cars, the antifreeze, the petroleum products, everything on that ship is burning, and it’s not supposed to,” said Altamaha Riverkeeper Executive Director Fletcher Sams. “So you have air quality issues, you have water quality issues, and then you have issues with what you’re going to put it out with.”

The foam firefighters commonly use to put out petroleum fires contains a substance nicknamed the “forever chemical” because it takes a long time to biodegrade and can cause long-term contamination, Sams said.

The fire burned for hours. By Saturday, response engineers began the process of assessing the damage, which is expected to take several days.

The assessment also includes water and air quality monitoring that so far have not detected hazardous substances, according to the response team.

This is not the first time a fire has broken out on the wreckage, Sams said, though it is by far the largest blaze. According to News4JAX, firefighting teams responded to a burning vehicle inside the ship as recently as January.

The only real hope of mitigating the damage is for the fire to be put out quickly, Sams said, but he was not optimistic Friday afternoon.

“It’s really just whether or not they’re going to be able to put out the fire,” he said. “We will find out how much damage there’s going to be, but it’s going to be, I would imagine, very significant.”

The method used by contractor T&T Salvage to remove the ship has been controversial. The ship is being cut into large pieces by a giant floating crane.

Another contractor, DonJon-SMIT, which was previously selected to salvage the wreck, planned to cut the ship into smaller pieces, which they said would have allowed for a more controlled removal of the cars left inside and reduced the risk of leaking pollutants.

Last year, DonJon-SMIT sued the Coast Guard, arguing that “T&T’s high-risk plan will likely result in an environmental disaster in the waters of St. Simons Sound.”

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Ross Williams
Ross Williams

Before joining the Georgia Recorder, Ross Williams covered local and state government for the Marietta Daily Journal. His work earned recognition from the Georgia Associated Press Media Editors and the Georgia Press Association, including beat reporting, business writing and non-deadline reporting.