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As oil comes ashore, environmental impact still unknown - The Galveston County Daily News : News

September 16, 2014

As oil comes ashore, environmental impact still unknown

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Posted: Monday, March 24, 2014 12:20 am | Updated: 8:47 am, Tue Mar 25, 2014.

GALVESTON — Environmental groups around Galveston Bay stood watch Sunday, on the lookout for wildlife harmed by the fuel oil spilled from a barge in Galveston Bay.

By the afternoon, volunteers from the Houston Audubon Society said that they had observed oiled birds in the Bolivar Flats Shorebird Sanctuary.

“I have no idea if this is something that’s more to come,” said Richard Gibbons, conservation director of the Houston Audubon Society. “We have seen a few birds, and let’s just hope that that’s the end of it.”

Gibbons was cautious to interpret the presence of the birds as an indication that oil had reached the sanctuary’s shores. The oiled birds detected were walking birds, meaning they could have picked the oil on rocks at the Texas City Dike and then flown to the sanctuary.

“Presumably these birds are coming in to these natural congregation areas,” Gibbons said. “They’ve been out where there’s oil, and they’re coming in.”

Gibbons said that his observers had detected at least five species with signs of oiling, including sanderlings, ruddy turnstones and American white pelicans.

Oiled birds have brownish smudging on their feathers, Giffords said. He said it’s not likely that the animals would avoid oiled beaches because they would interpret the affected area as mud.

Even if birds aren’t totally covered in oil, the substance can still pose a threat. Birds are likely to ingest oil as they clean themselves.

By Sunday afternoon, oil was washing up on the northeast end Galveston Island.

Clumps of the tarlike substance coated rocks and coastline along Boddeker Road all the way up to the East Beach Jetty.

Booms that had been placed in the water Sunday morning had been pushed to shore by wave and wind by the afternoon.

In some areas, the orange barriers had been coated black and flattened by the oil. In other points, farther east, no barriers had been placed at all.

Galveston park board officials inspecting the beaches Sunday afternoon said buoys had so far kept the oil out of the East End Lagoon, one of the most diverse ecological areas on the island. Four lines of barriers had blocked the single entrance to the lagoon.

City officials said that no oil had been detected on the Gulf side beaches.

The true extent of the environmental damage caused by the spill might not be known for some time, environmental experts said Sunday. At a news conference Sunday afternoon, officials advised against traveling on the water for fear of spreading the oil to new locations.

“It is extremely important, not just for boaters, but for the general public,” said Coast Guard Capt. Brian Penoyer. “It is possible to carry the oil. It is important to stay away from it.”

Penoyer had confirmed at the news conference that there had been reports of contaminated animals but offered few other details.

Jarrett Woodrow, a biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, said that since the oil spill is a heavy oil it is less likely to contaminate fish.

Still officials had closed both the Texas City Dike and Seawolf Park on Pelican Island to fishermen Sunday, and Galveston Beach Patrol officers had been ordered to stop anyone from fishing in the bay.

Though shore and wildlife cleanup operations will have to occur, officials had not announced plans on Sunday afternoon.

Bob Stokes, president of the Galveston Bay Foundation, said his group would help with cleanup efforts when they begin in earnest. Stokes said that only trained volunteers should handle oiled birds, but that the group would accept volunteers to help with administrative work.

“The primary responsibility for oil spill cleanup is going to be the first responders who are trained in oil spill cleanup,” Stoke said. “You just can’t put people who aren’t trained to work cleaning up oil. You can’t put people who aren’t trained to work cleaning oiled animals and birds.”

In a media release sent earlier in the day, officials said that Wildlife Response Services, a Seabrook-based environmental rehabilitation company, had been deployed to assist with impacted birds and marine life.

Officials urged people who find oiled animals to call 888-384-2000.

Reporter Wes Swift contributed to this report.

Contact reporter John Wayne Ferguson at 409-683-5226 or john.ferguson@galvnews.com.

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