Workers clean up TX oil spill, and wildlife

This image of Saturday morning's accident was provided by the U.S. Coast Guard

January 26, 2010 6:33:10 PM PST
While workers in yellow jumpsuits and white hardhats used high-tech equipment Tuesday to suck up the worst Texas oil spill in more than 15 years, wildlife experts gently dabbed wild birds with dishwashing liquid to clean their feathers of the slick. A barrage of vessels floated along the Sabine-Neches Waterway next to Port Arthur, where 462,000 gallons of light crude oil spilled this weekend after the Eagle Otome, an 800-foot tanker, collided with a towboat pushing two barges.

Officials said they were pleased with the cleanup's progress but could not say how long it would take or when the waterway, located about 90 miles east of Houston, would be reopened.

"Our response has been key to containing this," said Jim Suydam, a spokesman for the Texas General Land Office.

As of Tuesday, about 252,000 gallons of oil and an oil-water mix had evaporated, dispersed or been recovered, the Coast Guard said.

Amid the hum of equipment and the heavy petroleum smell that clung to the air, workers along the shoreline and aboard 27 vessels worked hard to collect the thousands of gallons of crude floating in globs and streaks on the water's surface in a 2-mile stretch confined by a plastic boom.

On one boat, a hunched worker used a paddle to guide oily water onto a belt skimmer -- a mesh-covered conveyor belt that allowed the water to fall through while dragging the thick oil into a storage tank in the boat's hull.

Another vessel dragged a skimmer -- a floating metal drum several feet long coated with a material that attracted the oil then sucked it into a storage tank inside the boat.

"You can clean up a lot of product with this," Richard Arnhart, regional director of oil spill prevention and response with the Texas land office, said of the drum skimmer. "It's a very effective tool."

About 530 individuals from the U.S. Coast Guard, the state, the shipping company and others were taking part in the cleanup, said Coast Guard Petty Officer Tom Atkeson.

On shore, a 24-foot trailer housed a clean-up center for three wild birds that had become covered in oil. Two sensitive wildlife areas nearby remained unaffected by the spill, but a black crowned night heron, a cormorant and a brown pelican were rescued after straying into the slick.

Workers from a wildlife response group under contract with the land office cleaned the birds using standard dishwashing liquid. Two of the birds sat in wooden pens and the third was in a dog kennel cage.

All three were under or next to heat lamps to increase their body temperatures, which they couldn't maintain while covered in oil, said Stacey Huffman, a wildlife rehabilitator.

"The cormorant was the most covered. We were a little worried about him last night. But he's doing fantastic," Huffman said. A fourth wild bird already had died.

Huffman said the dirty footprints inside the cormorant's cage indicated the bird would need to be washed at least two more times.

No human injuries have been reported from the spill. Port Arthur residents were forced to evacuate their homes for several hours while officials tested the air quality after the collision.

Environmental groups remained concerned that residents may still be exposed to dangerous pollutants. The smell of hydrogen sulfide, a hazardous gas with a rotten-egg scent that emanated from the oil after the spill, could at times be detected near the tanker Tuesday.

The Eagle Otome was being moved later in the day to nearby Beaumont for repairs.

The National Transportation Safety Board and the Coast Guard continue investigating the cause of the collision.

It was the largest spill in Texas since 1990, when a Norwegian tanker spilled 4.3 million gallons about 60 miles off Galveston. The state typically has about 800 spills a year, but nearly all involve less than one barrel, according to the Texas land office.