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Judge questions plan to remove capsized ship in huge chunks

FILE - In this Sept. 9, 2019, file photo, a Moran tugboat nears the stern of the capsizing vessel Golden Ray near St. Simons Sound off the coast of Georgia. The salvage team salvage team is seeking a federal permit to surround the shipwreck with a giant mesh barrier to contain any debris when they cut the ship apart. (AP Photo/Stephen B. Morton, File)
FILE - In this Sept. 9, 2019, file photo, a Moran tugboat nears the stern of the capsizing vessel Golden Ray near St. Simons Sound off the coast of Georgia. The salvage team salvage team is seeking a federal permit to surround the shipwreck with a giant mesh barrier to contain any debris when they cut the ship apart. (AP Photo/Stephen B. Morton, File)

SAVANNAH, Ga. (AP) — A federal judge Friday ordered attorneys for the U.S. Coast Guard and a maritime salvage company to answer detailed questions about plans to remove an overturned cargo ship on the Georgia coast by sawing it into eight enormous chunks.

The salvage firm Donjon-SMIT filed suit Feb. 13 asking the judge to halt removal of the South Korean freighter Golden Ray, which capsized off St. Simons Island on Sept. 8 shortly after leaving the nearby Port of Brunswick with 4,200 automobiles in its cargo decks.

The multi-agency command overseeing the wreck removal hopes to start cutting the ship into sections in April. But Donjon-SMIT says the Coast Guard violated the federal Oil Pollution Act when it allowed the ship's owner to drop the company for a rival salvage firm willing to remove the vessel in larger pieces. Donjon-SMIT's complaint says that plan threatens an “environmental disaster.”

U.S. District Court Judge Lisa Godbey Wood has scheduled a hearing for Tuesday. Indicating there's no time to waste, Wood submitted 45 questions Friday for attorneys on both sides to answer in writing prior to arriving in court.

“This is no ordinary case,” Wood wrote in her order Friday.

In its legal complaint, Donjon-SMIT said in November it presented a plan to the ship's owner, identified in the court filing as GL NV24 Shipping Inc., to remove the ship in sections weighing approximately 600 tons (544 metric tonnes) to allow systematic 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 tonnes). By allowing the switch, it said, the Coast Guard violated the 1990 federal law intended to improve oil spill responses by requiring shipowners to designate salvage responders in advance.

In her Friday order, the judge said she wants to know specifically who made the decision to hire a different salvage company and what “exceptional circumstances” justified the change.

She also ordered attorneys to provide estimates for the total cost, removal timetables, probabilities for success and worst-case environmental impacts for both Donjon-SMIT's initial proposal and the current plan to carve the ship into larger pieces.

In addition, the judge is asking about the importance of removing the wreck before hurricane season begins Jun. 1.

As for the 4,200 automobiles on board, the multi-agency command said this week it plans to leave them inside the huge sections of the ship that are to be lifted by a giant crane and loaded onto a barge. Though crews plan to wrap open ends of each chunk with a mesh material to contain debris, some vehicles are expected slip through.

“We do expect that some of the cars will end up in the water as part of the cutting process,” said Coast Guard Petty Officer 1st Class Nate Littlejohn, a spokesman for the multi-agency team.

Crews began work this week to surround the Golden Ray with a giant mesh barrier to contain any loose automobiles or other debris. Those will be cleaned up after the larger pieces are removed.

Associated Press

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