Galveston Oil Spill Threatens Wildlife

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When oil spills occur, it is the wildlife and ocean life that suffer most. The latest spill in the Galveston Bay isn't any exception.

A barge that is able to carry a million gallons of oil collided with a ship on Saturday afternoon, causing a leak of what could be 168,000 gallons of sticky oil into the Galveston Bay, though Coast Guard Petty Officer Andy Kendrick said Sunday it wasn't clear how much oil spilled.

Crews quickly started the clean up, skimming oil from the water into containment booms, in an effort to protect environmentally sensitive areas of the Houston ship channel, Kendrick said.

"This is a significant spill," Capt. Brian Penoyer, commander of the Coast Guard at Houston-Galveston, said.

What is devastating is that the area is home to popular bird habitats, especially during the approaching migratory shorebird season.

Officials said they had scattered reports of wildlife damage but no specifics. There was definitely black-tar-like globs and a dark line of a sticky oily substance along the shoreline of the dike, a 5-mile-long jetty that juts into Galveston Bay across from a tip of Galveston Island.

"That is the consistency of what the cargo looks like," Jim Guidry, executive vice president of Houston-based Kirby Inland Marine Corp. "We're very concerned. We're focused on cleaning up," he said.

The collision was still being investigated, the Coast Guard said.

The captain of the 585-foot ship, Summer Wind, reported the spill Saturday afternoon. Six crew members from the tow vessel were injured, the Coast Guard said.

Jim Suydam, spokesman for the Texas' General Land Office, described the type of oil the barge was carrying as "sticky, gooey, thick, tarry stuff."

Richard Gibbons, the conservation director of the Houston Audubon Society, said there is important shorebird habitat on both sides of the ship channel. One is the Bolivar Flats Shorebird Sanctuary just to the east, which is said to attract 50,000 to 70,000 shorebirds to shallow mud flats that are perfect foraging habitat.

"The timing really couldn't be much worse since we're approaching the peak shorebird migration season," Gibbons said. He added that tens of thousands of wintering birds remain in the area.

Scientists are still processing the effects of the nearly 170 million gallons of oil that flooded into the Gulf after the explosion of BP's oil rig. But so far, more than 8,000 birds, sea turtles, and marine mammals were found injured or dead in the six months after the spill. The long-term effects are not as yet known, but are being studied.

The short term damage is evident and during the first few months following the last Gulf disaster, wildlife managers, rescue crews, scientists and researchers saw many immediate impacts of the oil damage to wildlife:

Oil coated birds' feathers causing them to lose their buoyancy and the ability to regulate body temperature. Mammals could have ingested oil, which causes ulcers and internal bleeding. Sea turtles were covered in oil, and dead and dying deep sea corals were discovered seven miles from incident.

Image via YouTube

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