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'It's nasty stuff': Bunker fuel discharge from the capsized Golden Ray found 2 miles from overturned ship

A large, unanticipated release of thick bunker fuel from the cargo vessel in the St. Simons Sound comes just two weeks after a massive fire.

ST. SIMONS ISLAND, Ga. — Update: Seven hours after this story was first published and more than 24 hours after the leak began, the Georgia Department of Health issued an alert warning swimmers and fishermen about the presence of of "small, sticky globules" of oil around Jekyll Island and St. Simons Island.

A little more than two weeks after the hulking remains of the capsized Golden Ray were engulfed in flames, the cargo vessel began leaking what Coast Guard officials call a viscous bunker fuel.

The thick, black discharge that could be seen in aerial photos, was found washing up on Jekyll Island beaches and was located much as two miles from the stricken ship. Capt. Andy Jones is an 8th generation St. Simons Island native who' been documenting the ship's condition since it rolled onto its side in September 2019. He describes the consistency of the oil blobs as similar to honey or grease and says the scale of Tuesday's leak is as bad as he's seen since the early days of the disaster. 

"It's it's as bad as we have seen it since actually when the ship went over," Jones told First Coast News. "It's a pretty, pretty significant release that's come off."

U.S. Coast Guardsman Michael Himes, spokesman for Unified Command overseeing the salvage operation, said he would not categorize the discharge as an "emergency," but one that required them to "ramp up" environmental recovery efforts, doubling the usual number of patrolling boats from 5-7 vessels to 15 -- all trying to track and recover the oil.

"What happened yesterday was still consistent with what they expect to happen," Himes said. "I would not characterize it as an emergency discharge. It is still within the scope of our plan."

Jones, however, believes the environmental barrier that surrounds the salvage operation isn't able to offer sufficient protection to the surrounding beaches and estuaries.

"We were hoping that we weren't going to see anything like this because part of the operation and part of the approval by the Coast Guard was the implementation of what they call the 'environmental protection' barrier. There was a lot of expense in developing and implementing this barrier to hold in those contaminants inside of the wreck site. And it seems that that barrier has not lived up quite to the expectations that it was was hoped for."

Jones notes that the project's original contractor proposed gutting the ship's interior while leaving the hull intact, something that could have potentially offered another layer of protection against pollution. The current contractor chose to cut it into chunks, starting with removing both ends of the ship.

"I hate to Monday morning quarterback anything. But would there have been a better approach?" he wondered. "The unfortunate thing is once you've cut the end of the ship off, you can't put the toothpaste back in the tube. The best thing we can hope for now is, is for the process to accelerate, and go along as quickly as safety will allow the ship to get on out of here."

Jones was on the water all day Tuesday, filming much of it for his Minorcan Mullet YouTube channel, and notifying the Unified Command of where the oil was. His crew found globs of oil as far as two miles from the Golden Ray wreckage, but shifting tides and strong winds complicated recovery efforts.

"Once you add the wind component to it, it really makes it difficult to get it rounded up," Jones said. "These guys are doing all they can to try to get this material rounded up. But there's a lot of it out there."

Because it's necessary to see the fuel to try to collect it, recovery operations had to be suspended Tuesday night. Himes says they did not see significant discharge Wednesday morning.

While the Georgia Health Department is not closing beaches, there is an advisory in place for beachgoers, swimmers and fishers on Jekyll Island and St. Simons Island.

The Georgia Health Department is not closing the beaches has an ongoing notification to beachgoers to be on the lookout for debris and oil from the ship salvage operation.

The Coast Guards official press release about the incident is below:

BRUNSWICK, Ga. - Response environmental mitigation personnel recovered oil that discharged from the wreck on Tuesday. Mitigation operations occurred on the shoreline and in the vicinity of the wreck site. Cutting operations continue to separate Section Three of the Golden Ray wreck.

REMOVAL UPDATE

Cutting operations to separate Section Three from the remaining Golden Ray wreck are on-going. Wreck removal personnel resumed chain cycling operations on Tuesday after a routine inspection on Sunday prescribed maintenance to the rigging system of the cutting apparatus.

The 150-yard safety zone around the EPB is increased to 200 yards for recreational vessels. The Unified Command (UC) advises mariners to please steer clear of the perimeter to ensure the safety of our responders and the public. Any unauthorized usage of drones (unmanned aerial vehicles, UAVs) around the wreck site and near response facilities is discouraged due to safety. UAVs are distractions that can lead to near misses, mishaps and injuries. Responders will report any sightings of drones and drone operators to local authorities.

ENVIRONMENTAL UPDATE

On-water response teams maintain a 24-hour watch around the Golden Ray and they deploy pre-staged equipment and personnel to mitigate any oil discharges, sheens and debris observed. Natural Resource Advisors continue to monitor areas around the wreck site and the Environmental Protection Barrier for any wildlife activity or impacts.

Shoreline survey teams continue to recover small, plastic debris from the shorelines of Jekyll Island and St. Simons Island. All debris is sorted, catalogued and disposed of according to the response debris plan. To learn more about the response debris program, watch this video Subject Matter Expert Overview – Debris Removal Operations 

Safety personnel continue air monitoring in the community using mobile air monitoring equipment. Community air quality analysis and water sample analysis continues to confirm no exceedances of air and water quality standards.

If you encounter what you believe is debris from the Golden Ray wreck, please do not handle the debris. Call the Debris Reporting Hotline at (912) 944-5620. Responders evaluate each report, survey the vicinity and recover any shipwreck debris in addition to their daily surveys of the water and the shoreline. If you encounter residual oil on the shoreline or in the water, please call the National Response Center hotline at (800) 424-8802.