SAVANNAH, Ga. — A maritime salvage company is asking a federal judge to stop the Coast Guard and a rival firm from carrying out their plans to remove a cargo ship that overturned five months ago on the Georgia coast.
The multiagency team overseeing removal of the South Korean freighter Golden Ray recently announced plans to carve the 656-foot-long ship into eight giant pieces that would be loaded onto barges using a towering crane in the waters of St. Simons Sound near tony St. Simons Island. Removal is to start soon after crews surround the wreck with a large mesh barrier to trap stray debris, expected to take about a month.
The Golden Ray heeled over minutes after undocking in the Port of Brunswick on Sept. 8, 2019, and its crew of 23 was rescued. It has been shorted up with thousands of tons of rocks to prevent it from listing further, and its nearly full fuel tanks have been pumped out.
A key part of the dispute involves the fate of its cargo of 4,200 cars.
The salvage company Donjon-SMIT filed a complaint Thursday in U.S. District Court seeking a judge's injunction to stop any removal efforts. The company said the Coast Guard violated a 1990 federal law intended to improve oil spill responses by allowing the ship's owner to drop Donjon-SMIT as its pre-designated salvage responder.
Donjon-SMIT said the ship's owner, identified in the court filing as GL NV24 Shipping Inc., had rejected its plan to remove the ship “in small sections weighing approximately 600 tons (544 metric tonnes)” so crews could systematically remove the thousands of cars still inside the ship's cargo decks. The ship is filled with new Kias and Hyundais built in Mexico, and some cars from other companies, that were bound for the Middle East.
The company said the owner instead hired another firm, T&T Salvage, willing to remove the vessel in larger chunks of up to 4,100 tons (3,720 metric tonnes). The multiagency command team released some details of the plan Feb. 5, but has not said what it intends to do about the cars inside.
“In short, the cars need to be safely removed to avoid environmental disaster,” Donjon-SMIT said in its legal filing.
Campbell Houston, a spokesman for the multiagency command overseeing the salvage operation, had no immediate comment when reached by phone Friday.
T&T Salvage did not immediately reply to an email message seeking comment. A woman who answered the phone at the company's main office in Galveston, Texas, said no one there could speak to a reporter.
The Golden Ray capsized Sept. 8 in the St. Simons Sound shortly after leaving the Port of Brunswick. All crew members were successfully rescued and the port reopened a few days later. Salvage experts concluded the ship couldn't safely be returned upright and floated away intact, opting instead to take it out in pieces.
Donjon-SMIT's legal complaint says ships like the Golden Ray must have pre-approved plans for responding to wrecks, spills and other emergencies under the Oil Pollution Act of 1990. The company says it had been the Golden Ray's designated salvage responder since September 2017.
The company said its crews assisted in the rescue of the ship's crew immediately after it overturned in September. They also helped stabilize the shipwreck by placing rocks around it and removed 320,000 gallons (1.2 million liters) of oil mixed with water from the vessel's fuel tanks.
Donjon-SMIT said it was dropped from the salvage operation after presenting its plan to remove the vessel in November.