Cleanup & Abatement Under Way for Brunswick's Five-Year "Mystery Spill"

File image courtesy Smithsonian Institution

Published May 30, 2024 11:12 PM by The Maritime Executive


The U.S. Coast Guard is setting up a unified command to deal with a persistent mystery oil leak in Brunswick, Georgia, which has been affecting air and water quality along the waterfront. 

In February 2019, the Coast Guard opened an investigation into sheening near an oil terminal at 1025 Bay Street, about 400 yards from Brunswick's historic Old Town District. Local residents complained of an intermittent slick on the surface and a foul petroleum odor that would sometimes permeate the neighborhood, according to Brunswick News. 

"It's an unknown source of weathered gasoline," Susan Inman, coastkeeper for environmental group Altamaha Riverkeeper, told the outlet in 2021. "We were first notified by [local workers] because the smell was so strong they said it was like their heads were in a gas tank."

Over the years, the adjacent property owners and the federal Environmental Protection Agency carried out multiple studies to find the source of the petroleum and figure out its composition. "The parties have been exploring means of containing and removing the product(s)," Georgia Environmental Protection Division spokeswoman Sara Lips told the outlet in 2023. As the problem carried on without a resolution, Altahama Riverkeeper called for a comprehensive government response to the "mystery spill." 

On Tuesday, the U.S. Coast Guard stood up a unified command in Brunswick to coordinate a response to the petroleum release. The command also includes salvor and marine contractor Resolve Marine, the U.S. EPA, NOAA, the Georgia Department of Natural Resources, and the City of Brunswick's first responders. 

"Hard boom and absorbent materials have been placed around the property’s waterfront to contain and recover any product that enters the water as the source of the sheen remains unknown at this time," the Coast Guard said in an advisory Thursday. "The Unified Command has spill response contractors working to locate and secure the source of the discharge to prevent any potential environmental impacts."

The renewed effort to find and stop the Brunswick spill is not the only long-term spill abatement initiative under way at U.S. ports. The Coast Guard is also leading the response to a recurrent mystery spill at the port of San Juan, Puerto Rico, where seeps of bunker-like sludge have been found in water runoff pipes that drain into the harbor. The agency also handles a portfolio of abatement projects to address pollution from abandoned vessels in harbors and waterways.