Rachael Newman with a bird of a different feather. (Photo: Geisel)
April 20. When an explosion and fire rock the British Petroleum (BP)-licensed Transocean drilling rig Deepwater Horizon in the Gulf of Mexico, 11 people were reported missing and approximately 17 injured. A blowout preventer, intended to prevent release of crude oil, failed to activate.
Millions of gallons of oil spread across the Gulf, heading for the U.S. coastline. As attempts to contain the spill were tried and failed, work on the coast continued, with locals and help from across the country and around the world involved in the cleanup effort. Also on the line, saving jobs and the local economy, and salvaging an ecosystem being ravaged by the perilous petroleum. Among the many species of plants and animals affected: pelicans and other waterfowl.
Across the country in Mammoth Lakes, local Rachael Newman, 25, a Cerro Coso College Nursing student, had waterfowl rescue experience from previous service with California’s International Bird Rescue Research Center (IBRRC). So when the IBRRC called earlier this summer, she boarded a plane to Alabama.
“New volunteers take time to train; they needed someone who could hit the ground running,” Newman said.
Before moving to Mammoth, the Torrance native had been on staff at the IBRRC in Southern California. The organization has responded to such spills since the 1970s, and, along with East Coast counterpart Tri-State Bird Rescue, is one of the few specialists in rehabilitation of waterfowl and seabirds. “It made sense that BP hired them. They’ve been to spills in the Gulf before; they’re known worldwide,” she said.
Newman, a self-professed animal lover, said she fell in love with bird rescue during a 2004 stint with the IBRRC. “There was a spill off the California coast, and I wanted to help, so I volunteered,” she recalled. “That led to an internship and then a job, which lasted the next three years or so.”
Sweet-crude home Alabama
Newman and her IBRRC team were assigned to set up their post in the coastal Alabama town of Theodore. “Most of the TV footage you saw of drenched pelicans is from Louisiana, probably because they have a lot more wetlands,” Newman explained. “There was definitely enough of a significant problem to have a center built from scratch in Alabama, though.”
During her five weeks there, Newman had her hands on pretty much every facet of the operation. “We do paperwork, which we call ‘intake,’ give the birds physical exams, and take feather and oil samples,” she said.
The samples are “bagged and tagged” as forensic evidence in case they are needed in insurance claims or other types of legal situations.
The oil is analyzed and a chemical “fingerprint” is made. “Not all the oil in the Gulf or on the beaches is from the BP well leak,” she pointed out.
The birds are then hydrated and stabilized for 24 hours, then washed to remove the coating of thick oil. “It has the consistency of Elmer’s Glue,” she described. Birds in life-threatening danger are given a “quick wash.”
Interestingly enough, the team uses oil to remove oil, employing methyl soyate, made from simple soybean oil, which Newman said is natural, harmless and “great for breaking up in the wash.” They do use a detergent and hands down the liquid of choice may be sitting on your kitchen counter right now: Dawn. That’s right, the commercial dish-washing product.
“It helps break up the oil, but the main reason we like it is that the birds don’t have any bad reaction to it and it’s safe for their feathers,” she stated. The priority when washing: be thorough the first time. The birds’ feathers help keep the birds warm and dry, sort of their own wetsuit.
The result, she said is very satisfying. “When you see them come in versus when we’re done cleaning them, it’s night and day!”
Tarred and feathered
Some days, there were no birds, but most days Newman could have 15 or more birds to tend. The hours were long, the work was hard and stressful. “It’s not shocking,” she said. “We’re all used to dealing with it, but it’s disheartening. The birds are just covered. It’s sad.”
Given the massive amount of area involved, Newman said that as much as they celebrated each success, the team had to keep its collective chin up to stave off depressing thoughts. “For every bird we get, there may be a dozen that won’t be found,” she said somberly. “It sucks.”
Today Newman keeps in touch with the IBRRC crew still working in Theodore. “It’s hard, because eventually the work will stop, but there will still be so much more to be done.”
Even with 75 percent of the spill cleaned up, that leaves roughly 51 million gallons of oil unaccounted for. That would still rate the mess as one of the biggest oil spills on record. “The response may be perceived as not great, but the teams are out there every day looking,” she observed. “And the oil [that’s missed in the cleanup] will be there for generations.”
Consider that more than 20 years after the 1989 Exxon Valdez spill, according to a recent FOX News report, residual oil can still be smelled and found in the sand on the beaches of Alaska’s Prince William Sound.
Newman hopes that new rules and regulations may ultimately bring about a permanent solution to address the roots of the problem, and prevent spills such as this one before they happen.
For now, she has no illusions that everything’s coming up roses, or that any kind of quick fix will soon restore things to the way they were.
“It’s just plain bad all around.”