ATLANTA — Salvage workers on the Georgia coast are set to begin cutting the second section of the Golden Ray, the massive cargo ship that ran aground just over a year ago in the St. Simons Sound, after crews hit a milestone in removal operations this weekend.
Onlookers watched Saturday as the bow, brimming with smashed cars and trucks and weighing about 6,600 tons, was cut from the body of the ship and lifted just high enough to allow a custom fitted barge to slide underneath.
The section was then moved to a site on the East River where it will be secured for final transit to a recycling facility in Louisiana.
"This is our first major milestone in the removal operation," said Cmdr. Efren Lopez, U.S. Coast Guard federal on-scene coordinator. "We validated the overall removal method while we continue to refine our strategies to increase the efficiency of the next six cuts."
But environmental groups in the area have said they remain concerned about the possible impact the removal process may have on the environment given some of the debris and oil that washed up on the shore during the cutting and lifting process.
The Golden Ray, a car carrier with more than 4,000 Hyundai vehicles as cargo, had just left the Port of Brunswick when it rolled on its side in September 2019. Once all crew members had been rescued, salvage teams began preparing the ship for removal, removing oil from the tanks, establishing a barrier to protect the environment and making plans to cut the ship into eight sections.
But the removal was recently delayed due to the pandemic and the onset of hurricane season. Once cutting was underway, the process stalled again when the cutting chain broke. The challenges provided workers with an opportunity to refine their plans, said Petty Officer Michael Himes, spokesman for St. Simons Sound Incident Response.
Workers discovered the steel of the ship, just a few years old, was much stronger than anticipated, he said. So they replaced some of the cutting chain links with higher grades of steel. They had also planned on 24 hours of continuous cutting to avoid any structural issues with the ship, but they realized the strength of the ship would allow them to pause and resume cutting without significant problems.
"Each section, each cut, each lift is an operation in and of itself," Himes said. "They will not be doing the same thing over and over again."
The next section set for removal is the ship's stern, the rear section, in order to reduce the possibility of tidal changes in the sound that could shift the stability of the vessel, Himes said.
The environmental impact of the removal has been in line with what was expected, he said.
Response teams have found small globs of oil on the shoreline, light oiling on the water inside and outside of the environmental protection barrier, and debris, some of which was covered in oil, on both sides of the barrier and the shore, said Himes.
This weekend, while walking the shore, Fletcher Sams of Altamaha Riverkeeper said he recovered at least 80 pieces of debris, including seatbelts, melted plastic and other plastic parts of car interiors.
"The fact that the debris is washing up is an indication that the environmental protection barrier will catch some of it and not all of it," he said, adding that he expects to see more debris during cuts to the interior of the ship, which holds the bulk of the cargo.
As removal operations progress, local environmentalists have said they are keeping an eye on the impacts and will continue to lobby for a Natural Resource Damage Assessment, a process that evaluates and restores any resources impacted by vessel groundings, oil spills or hazardous waste sites.(c)2020 The Atlanta Journal-Constitution (Atlanta, Ga.) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC