Fishermen sue claiming Golden Ray pollution is still hurting business

Plaintiffs allege oil and debris released by capsized ship and its cleanup remain in the environment
The capsized Golden Ray is shown in the St. Simon's Sound on Sept. 4, 2020. GEORGE MATHIS/AJC

Credit: George Mathis/AJC

Credit: George Mathis/AJC

The capsized Golden Ray is shown in the St. Simon's Sound on Sept. 4, 2020. GEORGE MATHIS/AJC

Three years after the Golden Ray vehicle containership capsized in St. Simons Sound, a group of fishermen and businesses tied to coastal Georgia’s tourism economy have sued companies connected to the ship for damages, alleging pollutants released during the incident and cleanup have damaged their livelihoods.

The plaintiffs claim that oil and other contaminants that leaked from the ship are still in the water and have caused lasting harm to the area’s fragile ecosystem, according to a lawsuit filed Wednesday in U.S. District Court in Brunswick. The suit also says car parts and other debris continue to “wreak havoc on those who fish, boat, and rely on the local waterways to sustain their tourism-based businesses.”

The Golden Ray overturned before dawn on Sept. 8, 2019, after it left the Port of Brunswick with more than 4,000 vehicles onboard.

The incident released oil into the environment and touched off a complex effort to remove the vessel from St. Simons Sound, which took more than two years to complete. Along the way, the process of cutting the 656-foot ship into manageable chunks triggered more oil spills and a major fire, which temporarily delayed work at the site in May 2021.

The last piece of the Golden Ray was finally hauled away on a barge last October.

The defendants named in the suit are GL NV24 Shipping Inc., the Golden Ray’s owner; Hyundai Glovis Co., the ship’s manager; the G-Marine Service Co., Ltd., the operator and technical manager of the ship; Norton Lilly International, the vessel’s agent at the port of Brunswick; and T&T Salvage LLC, the company which led efforts to remove the wreckage.

The tourist operators claim GL NV24 Shipping and Hyundai Glovis breached federal oil pollution law and claim all of the defendants are still in violation of the federal Clean Water Act and a separate solid waste law.

The plaintiffs are asking the court to impose federal civil penalties against the companies and force them to remediate the sound, plus allow them to recover monetary damages and legal fees.

A spokeswoman for Norton Lilly said the company had no comment in response to the lawsuit.

Attempts by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution to contact representatives from the other companies were not immediately successful.

Crews work to extinguish a fire that broke out as salvage teams worked to remove the capsized Golden Ray from the St. Simons Sound.

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The new lawsuit involves many of the same defendants named in a separate suit filed in March by Glynn County, which is home to St. Simons Island, Jekyll Island and Brunswick, where the command center that oversaw the Golden Ray incident response was headquartered. The county is seeking compensation for economic losses and environmental damage caused by the shipwreck. A trial date has not been set in that case.

In 2021, a federal marine accident report concluded the ship’s chief officer entered incorrect information into a program used to calculate vessel stability, leading the ship to roll on its side.

Earlier this year, Georgia’s Environmental Protection Division doled out a $3 million fine against Hyundai Glovis for discharging pollutants into the state’s waters after the ship capsized. The fine is the largest ever imposed by EPD.