Days of cleanup after shipwreck oil leak fouls Georgia beach

More oil gushed into the water Monday from the remains of an overturned cargo ship being dismantled along the coast of Georgia, where dozens of workers were still busy cleaning up thick bands of blackened sand from a weekend oil leak that fouled a beach popular with tourists.

The multi-agency command overseeing demolition of the shipwreck dispatched about 70 workers to the shoreline of St. Simons Island, where oil had washed onshore across roughly 2.5 miles (4 kilometers) of beach and marsh grasses. Cleanup efforts were expected to take several days.

“It’s terrible,” Fletcher Sams, executive director of the Altamaha Riverkeeper conservation group, said as he strolled the beach Monday. “We’re looking at probably 100 yard bags full of oiled sediment that they’re picking up right now. But they’re hardly putting a dent in it.”

The South Korean freighter Golden Ray capsized on Sept. 8, 2019, shortly after departing the Port of Brunswick. Salvage crews began slicing the ship into giant chunks for removal nine months ago, and they finished cutting away the sixth giant section Friday.

Oil gushed into the water Saturday when the towering crane straddling the shipwreck began lifting the 4 ton (3.7 metric ton) segment. The salvage team believes oil had collected in the ship’s ballast tanks and came out through holes drilled to drain water from the partly submerged segment, said Coast Guard Petty Officer 2nd Class Michael Himes, a command team spokesperson.

He said a second attempt to lift the newly cut-away section Monday morning caused a second leak into the water around the shipwreck. Crews with boats and absorbent boom moved quickly to try to contain and suck up the latest spill.

“We have oil recovery operations happening on the water and oil recovery happening on the beach,” Himes said. “We have slowed down and restricted the lifting and removal of Section 6 to very special conditions to limit any further discharges.”

Located about 70 miles (112 kilometers) south of Savannah , St. Simons Island is Georgia’s most populous barrier island with more than 14,000 residents.

It’s also a popular tourist destination. Oil from the Golden Ray streaked the sand just south of a beach resort, stained the rocky shoreline near the island’s historic lighthouse and polluted marsh grasses at the edge of a golf course.

“It was really nasty,” Dee Dee Deal, who was visiting St. Simons Island from Tennessee, told WJXT-TV . “When you step in the water, it’s all slick. You really don’t want the kids in the water.”

While boat crews managed to contain much of the oil in the waters around the shipwreck, some of the oil that leaked Saturday managed to escape a protective barrier of floating boom and reach the beach.

Response teams have been working since then to rake oil-streaked sand into piles that are bagged and removed from the beach. In the marsh, they’re using an absorbent material made from peat moss.

As of Monday afternoon, responders had found only one animal, a seagull, partly coated with oil. Himes said the bird didn’t appear injured, but was being taken to a raptor center to determine if it needed treatment. Sams of the Altamaha Riverkeeper urged Georgia environmental regulators to conduct a formal assessment to determine the extent of the damage from the spill.

The beach on St. Simons Island remained open to the public, though public health officials urged beachgoers to watch out for oil.

Salvage workers drained more than 320,000 gallons (1.2 million liters) of oil mixed with water from the Golden Ray’s fuel tanks before demolition work began. Still, residual amounts of fuel remained. Another large oil leak occurred in early July. And officials said lingering fuel sparked by a cutting torch may have caused a fire that engulfed the shipwreck in May.

Nearly two years after the Golden Ray capsized, the job of removing it in giant pieces is nearing the home stretch. Once the leaking sixth section gets hauled away by a barge, one more cut is needed to separate what’s left of the ship into its final two segments.

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