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Sustainability Stories: February 2022

Golden Ray Part 2: MER's Role

Thursday, February 10, 2022  by qrelihan

      In part 1 of my series on the capsizing of the Golden Ray vessel in St. Simons Sound off the coast of Georgia in 2019, I had the opportunity to speak with Jason Maddox from Gallagher Marine Systems who was the prime contractor on the project for most of the duration.  MER was activated the night the Golden Ray capsized and contracted within days of the incident to provide labor and equipment to provide environmental management services for the response, which is still happening now.   A response of this scale has significant environmental impacts to the ocean, the wildlife, the beaches, and the community; our role was imperative in mitigating those risks. Our Emergency Response & Preparedness Group led the effort through our MEMT team (Moran Emergency Management Team).  We had many employees who stayed onsite in Georgia for the duration of the response. Bernie Reagan provided local leadership and management of the project.

       When the response began, MER crews had upwards of 100 personnel and 18 vessels for oil recovery, debris removal, and disposal operations.  As the response progressed, fewer personnel were needed, and now there are 12 MER crew members working to clean up St Simons Sound.  The personnel that are there now are managing disposal operations, performing SCAT, and maintaining the safety vessel.  In fact, MER has been maintaining the safety vessel around the clock since the beginning of the response.  The safety vessel must always have three individuals on board, a captain, a deckhand, and a Gallagher representative.  This means that since September 8th, 2019, MER has helped man the safety vessel 24 hours a day.  During this 24 hour watch the three-man crew deploys pre-staged equipment to contain any oil releases or debris that they come across.  MER was able to do this despite many disruptions that slowed response and impacted the availability of personnel.

      Among those disruptions was COVID-19, which was mentioned in part 1 of this narrative series. COVID-19 required more time dedicated to developing a plan that allowed the response to continue while keeping the health and safety of the responders as the priority.  Bernie emphasized the same point that Jason Maddox had made that COVID-19 did not prevent response progress, but rather it added extra steps to daily operations that slowed progress.  For instance, MER personnel were divided into groups due to the many CDC guidelines and protocols they had to follow to continue their work safely.  Tasks often needed more time to be completed since there was an additional checklist regarding COVID-19 precautions that had to be adhered to.

      Along with COVID-19, the Golden Ray response also experienced a vessel fire.  The vessel fire put response efforts on hold for a little while, but according to Bernie, it was not as significant of a disruption as the pandemic.  Even though it put response efforts on hold, the priority was still maintaining a safe and healthy environment.  Safety crews were constantly monitoring air and water quality in the surrounding areas both before and after the fire.  The water and air quality levels were within healthy standards each time they were tested, which indicates how efficiently MER crews contained spills and minimized the overall threat (St Simons Incident Response 2021).  In fact, once the fire was under control, operations were able to continue without losing too much progress.

       A vessel fire was not the only disruption that threatened the environment, because as cuts to the vessel were being made there were a few large releases of oil.  This would disrupt the removal process of the vessel from the sound because crews had to turn their attention to containing and cleaning up the release.  MER crews deployed booming equipment to contain the oil instead of performing tasks that would move the response forward.  In addition to the booming equipment crews also used current busters, oil skimmers and barriers to mitigate the damage from the release (St Simons Incident Response 2021).  Therefore, MER’s ability to respond with equipment and personnel so quickly was critical to the success of the response.  The quicker the oil released can be contained the lower the risk it poses to surrounding beaches, wildlife, and community.  MER was able to provide the necessary equipment needed to respond to an oil release as well as provide additional crews and they were able to do so quickly which minimized the potential risk to the environment.

       These extra crews were needed to perform environmental monitoring tasks such as containing the oil with booming equipment and performing SCAT on the surrounding coastline.  MER still has crews there performing SCAT to check for damage to the environment and marine animals along the coast of St Simons Sound.  SCAT teams are specifically looking at the type of oil that has been released and a variety of factors that will determine the most effective clean-up method (NOAA 2021).  This includes natural removal rates, threat of human exposure and determining if it is more harmful to clean-up the oil or to let it breakdown naturally.  Throughout the response there have been no observed or reported impacts to wildlife in the area (St Simons Sound Incident Response 2021). MER crews will continue to prioritize the surrounding environment by walking the shoreline and checking for impacts from residual oil.  SCAT is also used to collect and properly dispose of debris that washes ashore. 

      Due to the dedication and consistency from MER’s management team, John Silva, Bernie Reagan, Alex Weeks, Toby Bouchard, and Sean Boyle, MER was able to provide additional crews and equipment with little notice and do so rather seamlessly.  Large oil releases from the Golden Ray meant that MER personnel not only had to adapt to disruptions like COVID, but they also had to go above and beyond by sending last-minute crews and equipment.  This was made possible because of the work done by MER’s management team and subcontractors, who consistently worked hard and showed up when needed.  In fact, Bernie emphasized how reliable the subcontractors MER worked with were and how it was their reliability that made it a positive experience for all parties involved. 

      The fact that MER was able to scale up quickly in the middle of a global pandemic speaks to the company’s dedication to performance.  This is a testament to MER’s ability to consistently perform at the highest level and hold themselves and subcontractors they work with to the highest standards.  MER’s contribution to the Golden Ray response demonstrates our dedication protecting the surrounding environment during and after the response is completed.  MER crews took on the responsibility of oil recovery, debris removal, management of disposal operations and SCAT teams all of which are focused on mitigating the threat to the surrounding environment, community and wildlife. 

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