Coastal conservation group says largest-ever $3M fine involving Golden Ray is ‘definitely low’

Published: Dec. 6, 2021 at 1:06 PM EST
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SAVANNAH, Ga. (WTOC) -A $3 million environmental fine assessed in the Golden Ray ship wreck is the largest on record in Georgia.

One coastal conservation group says it doesn’t go far enough.

“We feel the $3 million dollars is definitely low because every time we’re out here walking along the beaches or on the water, we see contaminants, said Susan Inman, Coastal Advocate with One Hundred Miles. “Whether it’s product floating in the water, as in heavy fuel oil or weathered gasoline from the cars or plastic floating debris, which is also harmful to the environment. So it’s an ongoing process and we feel the marine community is underestimated.”

The $3 million environmental penalty is part of a 27-page agreement between Hyundai Glovis Company and the Georgia Department of Natural Resources Environmental Protection Division. A spokesperson for the state division confirmed the penalty amount is the largest on record.

The company has a year to pay the penalty and can put together a supplemental environmental project to offset the total fine amount - up to 95 percent of the project value can be subtracted from the fine amount, according to details included in the consent order. The project is subject to approval by the Georgia DNR.

On September 8th of 2019, a massive cargo ship carrying more than 4,000 cars rolled over in the St Simons Sound. The U.S. Coast Guard rescued crew members on board.

For the next month, gasoline, oil, chemicals and other pollutants leaked into the water. The pollution from then and more recently during the cutting of the ship comes with a $3 million dollar environmental penalty - the largest on record in Georgia.

The state division can fine a violator by as much as $50,000 per day for the release of oil and debris - something that was not done, Inman pointed out.

A Natural Resource Damage Assessment is one of the items the One Hundred Miles organization wants to see completed to better determine the penalties in the Golden Ray.

“What that does is it actually gives you a baseline of your damages or injuries to the area and that has never been completed, so to figure out where this fine came from is a question because this baseline has never been established,” Inman said.

WTOC Investigates asked the state’s Environmental Protection Division how it calculated the $3 million dollar penalty. In a written response, a spokesperson said:

The proposed order notes that from September 8, 2019 until October 6, 2019, oil and debris were released daily from the Golden Ray causing significant impact to the environment. The order also notes that cutting and salvage operations (11/6/20 – 10/24/21) resulted in daily releases of oil and debris. Though most of these later releases were minor, several large releases occurred from the lifting and loading of each section as well as other significant releases on or around June 2, 2021 and on or around July 1, 2021.

It went on to say: “In short, EPD calculated the penalty based 28 days of releases with significant environmental impact and 352 days of releases with minor to moderate environmental impact. "

The state division also considered “the extensive efforts of the responsible party to respond to and mitigate the effects of the releases,” which includes the Incident Action Plan followed by the Unified Command Response. Also, the state noted the company has no history of environmental violations in Georgia.

The Unified Command removed the last section of the ship in November - more than two years after it overturned.

The work being done now is to retrieve the cars that fell out during the ship removal. A large crane operator is pulling them from the channel and stacking them onto a barge.

There is no estimated timeline for when all of the debris will be removed.

Do you think the $3 million dollar fine is enough? The state wants to hear from the public and says the input may prompt a renegotiation of the consent order.

The public has until Dec. 23rd to weigh in.

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