Experts Fear Impacts of Oil Cleanup on Texas Gulf Coast

Experts Fear Impacts of Oil Cleanup on Texas Gulf Coast|
April 11, 2014 | 9:45 AM

Oil cleanup itself could disturb the ecosystem along the Texas Gulf Coast. Nowhere is threat more apparent than at Aransas National Wildlife Refuge.
Workers scraping oil-drenched sand from the beaches of Matagorda Island.

MATAGORDA ISLAND, TX — Recovery efforts continue weeks after a barge accident in the Houston Ship Channel dumped tens of thousands of barrels of oil into Galveston Bay. That oil kills wildlife and damages the environment. But some are worried the cleanup itself could also disturb the ecosystem along the Texas Gulf Coast. Nowhere is that threat more apparent than in the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge.

Every morning this week, hundreds of workers have gone out to Matagorda Island, a part of that refuge, to try to remove the oil. On a recent tour organized by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the response team appeared to work with great care, gingerly scraping thin layers of oil-drenched sand away with shovels, then depositing it into nearby excavators for delivery into larger dump trucks. Over ten tons of sand has been removed so far.

Randal Ogrydziak, the U.S. Coast Guard captain who is one of the coordinators of the spill response, likens the painstaking process to shoveling a gravel driveway after a snow storm.

“You can think of it as the snow is the oil — not that thick — the driveway is the good sand underneath, and you just want to take bad stuff and get rid of that, and leave the good sand,” Ogrydziak says. “We don’t want to dig up the whole beach here. That’s not what we want to do.”

Oil cleanup itself could disturb the ecosystem along the Texas Gulf Coast. Nowhere is threat more apparent than at Aransas National Wildlife Refuge.
Photo: Mose Buchele ~ Randal Ogrydziak, the US Coast Guard Captain who is one of the coordinators of the spill.

Ogrydziak’s concern that the cleanup could do “more damage than the oil” is not limited to the sand. This thin barrier island, like the rest of the National Wildlife Refuge, is not meant for people. Now it’s home to ATVs, bobcat excavators, dump trucks, helicopters, and hundreds of response personnel. They – and the oil – all arrived right as migratory animals are passing through on their annual trip.

“The oil spill could not have happened at a worse time,” says Nancy Brown, a spokesperson for U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. “You have these birds that have migrated literally across the Gulf of Mexico. They arrive here, they are exhausted, [and] all they want to do is get something to eat, get something to drink, rest, and then continue their migration.”

But Brown says if they’re constantly being disturbed by the cleanup activity, “they’re not only not eating, they’re wasting calories trying to get away.”

They can also be spooked from their nests by the activity, leaving eggs and young animals vulnerable to predators. Workers here say they’re doing their best by limiting trips to and from the island, being careful with vehicles, and enforcing a “flight ceiling” on helicopters so they don’t disturb the birds.

Oil cleanup itself could disturb the ecosystem along the Texas Gulf Coast. Nowhere is threat more apparent than at Aransas National Wildlife Refuge.
Photo: Mose Buchele ~ After the oil was pushed ashore, it was covered by a layer of sand, making it more difficult to detect.

Of particular concern is the endangered whooping crane. This refuge is home to the only naturally-occurring flock of those birds in the world. Around 300 whooping cranes winter here, and many have not yet left for their summer grounds in Canada.

Right as the cranes leave, the Kemps-Ridley sea turtle arrives. That’s also an endangered species. It lays its eggs on the same beaches – now oily beaches – where the response crews are working with excavators and dump trucks to remove the oil.

Jeremy Edwardson, a Fish and Wildlife Biologist, says it will be difficult to measure the full impact of the spill and the recovery efforts.

“I don’t think we’ll ever understand it,” says Edwardson. “There’s some stuff to document and it’s easy to document. But there’s also the potential for oil to be here for years, so it’s possibly going to be an ongoing response.”

Source: StateImpact Texas  ~ A reporting project of  NPR member stations logo

Texas oil spill a concern for whooping cranes

Northern Journal

Environment — April 7, 2014 at 8:31 PM From International

Texas oil spill a concern for whooping cranes                                          

by Maria Church                                                                                  


Photo: Petty Officer 3rd Class Carlos Vega Crew members work to remove oil on the beaches of the National Seashore Park on Apr. 1 following the Galveston Bay oil spill in Texas. Whooping crane advocates expressed concern after hearing reports of heavy machinery being used in the cleanup effort.

Crew members work to remove oil on the beaches of the National Seashore Park on Apr. 1 following the Galveston Bay oil spill in Texas. Whooping crane advocates expressed concern after hearing reports of heavy machinery being used in the cleanup effort.

An advocacy group for the protection of endangered whooping cranes says it’s “very concerned” about the impacts of a tanker spill in Texas that resulted in 168,000 gallons of oil being dumped into Galveston Bay, less than 300 km from where the birds overwinter.

Oil globs as large as basketballs began washing up on Matagorda Island last week, an area of the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge where whooping cranes spend the winter season before heading to their northern breeding grounds in Wood Buffalo National Park.

A sizeable operation has been launched by the US Coast Guard to clean up the spill, which happened on Mar. 22 when an oil tanker collided with another ship in the bay, but some are expressing concern that the effects of the cleanup could be devastating to the fragile crane population in the middle of migration.

Chester McConnell, one of the advocates behind Friends of the Wild Whoopers (FOTWW), told The Journal his concern stems from what he sees as a lack of concern for the cranes and other endangered species by the cleanup crew.

“The intensive cleanup efforts were doing the job for other needs associated with the beaches and were not too concerned about wildlife,” he said.

FOTWW, along with other conservation groups, made significant noise after hearing reports of heavy equipment and machinery being used early in the cleanup process.

Last week, their outcry made some headway when it was confirmed that cleanup crews will switch to hand tools and equipment that has a “light touch” in areas sensitive to wildlife.

“As of today, our concerns have subsided a bit,” McConnell said in an email Friday.

Lessons to be learned

The whooping cranes are currently in the middle of a staggered migration period that will eventually see the entire population leave Texas and make its way through the US to their summer home in Wood Buffalo.

According to observers, around 25 per cent of the population has already begun migration.

While immediate concern about the safety of whooping cranes has eased, McConnell said it’s important for leaders and politicians to reflect on how they will respond to future emergency environmental threats.

“Those of us interested in whooping cranes have been concerned for many years that something like this oil spill would occur. There is much boat traffic that goes immediately by the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge. Any of these vessels loaded with oil, chemicals, etc. are a serious threat,” he said.

“Plans need to be developed specifically for the Aransas Refuge vicinity to respond to any future emergencies. Equipment and supplies need to be on call so immediate attention can be directed to any future catastrophe near Aransas Refuge.”

Reports from US media last week confirmed that hundreds of birds were killed by oil from the Galveston spill, a close call for the endangered whooping crane population of less than 300.

“The whooping cranes that use Aransas are the only wild flock remaining on the planet. They are the crown jewels and all other efforts to restore whooping cranes in other locations are dependent on these birds,” McConnell said.

Tags wildlife

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Oil spill clean-up: Ten tons removed from Matagorda Island

Oil spill clean-up: Ten tons removed from Matagorda Island

KHOU 11 News

by Doug Miller,  Posted on April 8, 2014 at 12:11 AM

Updated today at 9:57 AM  

MATAGORDA ISLAND — Amid one of the most important wildlife sanctuaries in America, a place where birds almost always outnumber the few humans venturing to a remote island, workmen are now hauling away tons of beach sand contaminated by oil.

Men wearing protective suits scratch at the sand on Matagorda Island, using shovels to unearth the layer of oil lingering beneath a thin film of freshly deposited sand.

“Right,” says George Degener, a U.S. Coast Guard petty officer. “We want to remove as much contaminated debris as we can, but still leave as much clean sand in the area as we possibly can.”

More than two weeks have passed since a barge carrying oil collided with another vessel at the mouth of the Houston Ship Channel, triggering a spill that shut down traffic flowing into the Port of Houston and coated an unknown number of birds in oil during their migratory season. But the consequences of that accident are still evident along the Texas coastline, on distant shores like Matagorda Island.

Oil washed ashore along 24 miles of the island’s beaches, leaving black stains not only in the sand but also on debris like logs. Coast Guard spokesmen say all but about four miles have since been cleaned by workers who’ve removed more than 10 tons of contaminated soil and contaminated debris.

Most of the oil has dried out, in some places developing into patches looking like asphalt on the beach. But some of it still glistens in pools.

“As the oil settled and tide brought in layers of sand over it, it’s dried out,” Degener says. “And it’s become almost asphalt-like. As it lays in, the toxins will evaporate and the oil will actually harden. So that’s what they’re trying to remove right now.”

Unlike the heavily developed beaches in Galveston where the oil spill originated, Matagorda Island is almost entirely vacant land where birds are more common than people. As part of the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge, it is the winter home to the world’s largest flock of endangered whooping cranes.

This spill has washed ashore not only at a bad place, but also at a bad team. Ridley sea turtles are expected to begin crawling out of the Gulf of Mexico, crossing the beaches and laying their eggs in the grassy dunes.

“One of the challenges for wildlife in this situation is that we have a lot of migrating birds,” said Nancy Brown, a spokesperson for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. “And this includes whooping cranes. Whooping cranes are about to begin their migration. And migration is an incredibly dangerous time for a bird.”

So far, none of the oil has turned up on the bay side of the island around the whooping crane habitat. But wildlife experts are still worried that all the activity surrounding the cleanup will somehow affect the migration of the rare birds, which are accustomed to spending their winters on a virtually deserted island.

“There are more people on this island right now than there are whooping cranes in existence in the world,” Brown said. “So we’re very concerned about that. And we’re working as part of this effort to try minimize the impact to that highly endangered bird.”

The Coast Guard says Kirby Inland Marine, which owns the barge from which the oil spilled, is paying for the cleanup. Nobody knows how much it will cost, a company spokesman says, because nobody knows how long the cleanup will take.



Voices From the Past

Courtesy of Kevin Sims Photo taken at Aransas National Wildlife Refuge.
Lesson in foraging. ~Kevin Sims

Below is a link to a recording of Whooping Cranes at Aransas National Wildlife Refuge, recorded January 26, 1954. The Macaulay Library has twelve different Whooping Crane recordings but this one is by far the best out of the twelve. It talks about 1954 being the first year that they had three young colts successfully migrate with their parents from Wood Buffalo National Park in Canada. The Whooping Crane population at ANWR for that winter was a total of 24, including the three colts.

 The first speaker you hear in the recording is Arthur Allen, a renowned ornithologist,for whom the Arthur A. Allen Award is named after. Julian Howard, the second person to speak and mentions the annual count being 24, was the manager of ANWR at the time.

Six months later, the nesting grounds were found at Wood Buffalo National Park and no longer unknown. Very slowly during the past 60 years the flock has increased to approximately 300 in 2013. That’s progress by any measure.

 1954 Arthur A. Allen Recording