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Salvagers ask about building a wall around shipwreck, Army Corps says

The Golden Ray, a massive cargo ship, caught fire and capsized on the St. Simons Sound off the coast of Georgia in the early hours of Sunday, Sept. 8, 2019.

RYAN DICKINSON/COAST GUARD

By LARRY HOBBS | The Brunswick News | Published: October 30, 2019

(Tribune News Service) — Building a water-tight steel wall around the shipwrecked Golden Ray, then draining all the water inside, could create a dry work environment for dismantling the 656-foot vessel that has foundered in the St. Simons Sound since Sept. 8.

Such a structure is known as a cofferdam. And it is not so far-fetched an endeavor as it may appear to the average layperson, according to officials with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. In fact, the Unified Command has at least considered the possibility of a cofferdam as a part of the solution to salvaging the ship, said Billy Birdwell, spokesman for the Army Corps of Engineers in Savannah.

Birdwell told The News that the Unified Command has inquired recently about the permits needed to build a cofferdam around the ship. The Unified Command consists of the U.S. Coast Guard, the Georgia Department of Natural Resources and Gallagher Marine Systems.

“They (Unified Command) would need a permit from us to install a cofferdam around the Golden Ray, and they have approached us as to what steps they would need to take for a cofferdam,” Birdwell said. “But they have not filed an application yet.”

When contacted Tuesday by The News, the Unified Command would not specifically confirm whether it is considering the use of a cofferdam in the salvaging of the Golden Ray. It issued this response from U.S. Coast Guard Commander Norman Witt, the command’s federal on-scene coordinator:

“Engineers within the Unified Command are evaluating multiple options for removal of the Golden Ray. Some options require permitting and/or other approval measures. We are researching requirements and impacts of these options. Planning for a removal operation of this size requires a plan that keeps responders and the public safe, protects the surrounding marine environment and ensures the wreck is fully removed.”

The corps’ Birdwell said cofferdam construction is a common engineering procedure, permits for which the Corps of Engineers routinely considers here in Coastal Georgia. Neither is cofferdam engineering technology new, dating at least to Roman times, according to Encyclopedia Brittanica.

A modern cofferdam generally consists of corrugated steel sheets driven into the seabed and reinforced to withstand the outside water pressure once the water is drained from the enclosure created within, he said.

“We work with cofferdams all the time,” Birdwell said. “They would have to hire somebody who knows how to build a cofferdam, which is a standard construction. Lots of people know how to do that. It’s just large corrugated steel driven into the ground underneath the water. Once that’s done, they pump out the water.”

The Golden Ray capsized between Jekyll and St. Simons islands in the dark morning hours of Sept. 8 while heading out to sea with a cargo of 4,200 vehicles.

The ship was piloted at the time by local harbor pilot Capt. John Tennant, who was praised recently for intentionally grounding the Golden Ray when he realized the ship was in peril. Tennant is with the Brunswick Bar Harbor Pilots Association, which provides highly-trained mariners with in depth knowledge of local waters to guide incoming freighters in and out of the Port of Brunswick.

“We would have an even bigger problem,” Georgia Ports Authority Executive Director Geoff Lynch told a gathering on Jekyll Island earlier this month, referring to Tennant’s actions.

Some 82 feet across at its widest, the ship now lies half submerged on its side, grounded on the Jekyll Island side of the shipping channel that runs through the St. Simons Sound.

On Oct. 12, Unified Command announced its only course action to remove the Golden Ray from the sound is to disassemble it in place. The vessel cannot be safely righted and refloated, maritime experts with the command determined.

This week salvage crews began hauling in aggregate rock by barge to place around the ship’s sunken hull. This is a necessary precaution against erosion and scouring of the sand and sediment around the ship, which could create further instability, the Unified Command said. The 6,000 tons of rock is being hauled to the Port of Brunswick via dump trucks and transported from there to the shipwreck via barge.

If the Unified Command does choose to establish a cofferdam around the Golden Ray, they should have little trouble getting the necessary permitting from the Army Corps of Engineers, Birdwell said. The channel leading to the Port of Brunswick is a federal shipping lane that falls under the jurisdiction of the corps. Col. Daniel Hibner, commander of the Army Corps of Engineers’ Savannah District, has met in person with leaders of the Unified Command about expediting the salvaging process, Birdwell said.

“We are cooperating fully and have volunteered to move things along as quickly as possible,” Birdwell said. “We want it out of there too — it’s too close to the channel, and that is our responsibility. Our commander has been down there and he has pledged our cooperation.”

©2019 The Brunswick News (Brunswick, Ga.)
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