The decks of the Golden Ray are visible as the car carrier lay on its side off St. Simons Island, Georgia. / AP
BRUNSWICK, Ga. — Officials for a salvage company suing to halt demolition of an overturned cargo ship on the Georgia coast appeared to back away Tuesday from claims that sawing the vessel into enormous chunks would cause an “environmental catastrophe.”
Officials from the salvage firm Donjon-SMITH told a U.S. District Court judge they would be willing to dismantle the South Korean freighter Golden Ray using the same large-scale method their written lawsuit condemns as too risky. The ship remains off St. Simons Island, where it capsized Sept. 5 after departing the Port of Brunswick with 4,200 automobiles, mostly new Hyundais and Kias, in its cargo decks.
Judge Lisa Godbey Wood has treated the suit filed Feb. 13 with a sense of urgency as the multi-agency team overseeing removal of the ship prepares to start cutting it apart in May. Wood told Donjon-SMIT officials and their attorneys several times that differences between their testimony and their written legal filings caught her by surprise.
“I felt like you were rushing into court because you felt we were heading into large-scale environmental destruction,” Wood said.
Donjon-SMIT's lawsuit says the Coast Guard violated a federal law passed to improve oil spill responses by allowing the ship's owner to replace the salvage firm with a competitor.
Donjon-SMIT officials say in November they presented a plan to the ship's owner, GL NV24 Shipping Inc., to remove the ship in sections weighing approximately 600 tons (544 metric tons). Taking off the top of the wreck first and working down would allow for removal of the cars inside.
The company said the ship's owner rejected its plan and hired another firm, T&T Salvage, willing to remove the vessel in larger chunks of up to 4,100 tons (3,720 metric tons). By allowing the switch, Donjon-SMIT said, the Coast Guard violated the 1990 Oil Pollution Act that requires shipowners to designate salvage responders in advance.
“This has left Donjon-SMIT with no other option but to seek court intervention in the best interest of the proper enforcement of (federal law) and to avert an imminent environmental catastrophe,” Donjohn-SMIT's lawsuit said.
Testifying in favor of an injunction Tuesday, Donjon-SMIT salvage master Douglas Martin told the judge his company recommended against cutting the Golden Ray into larger pieces because of concerns that they might collapse, dropping cars and other debris into the water.
He said the company's concerns arise from its experience using that method on other wrecked ships.
“We made our preferred recommendation, but we never said we would not do the large-scale removal,” Martin testified. “We were always capable and willing to do it.”
Pressed by the judge on why the company would use a salvage technique despite the dire warnings in its lawsuit, Martin said the decision on how to dismantle the ship was ultimately up to the owner and the Coast Guard.
“If it's mandated that, 'This is how it's going to go; we'll do it with you or without you,' then you'd rather be in,” Martin said.
The judge did not say how soon she might rule on Donjon-SMIT's request to temporarily halt removal efforts on the Golden Ray.
Crews last week began work to surround the ship with a mesh barrier reaching from the seabed to the surface to contain any cars or other debris falling into the water during demolition.
Martha Mann, a Justice Department attorney representing the Coast Guard, said the agency's commander overseeing the salvage efforts found that “exceptional circumstances” justified switching companies to remove the ship. The Coast Guard wants to get as much work as possible done before hurricane season starts June 1. It says Donjon-SMIT's preferred plan would take four months longer.
“The vessel is very large. It is in a position it's not meant to be in” lying on its side, Mann told the judge. “It's subject to tidal influence and hurricane season is going to be here in a few months, which only heightens the threat of pollutant releases.”
Martin told the judge he believed Donjon-SMIT could get the job done by early August. And an attorney for the company, Joseph Odachowski, argued that the decision allowing the owner to choose a new salvage firm has already delayed the demolition by several months.