A barge carrying 900,000 gallons of tar-like oil spilled into the busy Houston Ship Channel amid peak birding season, endangering the 50,000 to 70,000 birds that fly to the Bolivar Flats Shorebird Sanctuary every year.
The barge collided with a tanker on Saturday, leaking thousands of gallons of thick oil into Galveston Bay. An oil slick 12 miles long has made containing the spill impossible. Salvage vessels pumped about 750,000 gallons of marine fuel off the barge on Sunday.
Officials estimate 168,000 gallons spilled into the water.
"This is devastating," James Stork, 46, a Galveston native, told the Houston Chronicle. "I think cleanup is going to be a lot more than they expected. It's really going to affect the economy for people who depend on fishing and shrimping.”
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For the Bolivar Flats Shorebird Sanctuary this is the absolute “worst time” for such a spill to occur. About 50,000 birds are currently roosting there, according to Richard Gibbons, conservation director for the Houston Audubon Society.
"We're at the peak of the birding season. In a couple weeks, there's a birding festival," said Anna Armitage, a professor at Texas A&M University in Galveston and an expert on marshes and marine habitats. "This is one of the worst times for birds to be potentially exposed."
“There could be hundreds or thousands of birds of various species in the area affected by the spill,” Texas Parks and Wildlife Department spokesman Tom Harvey told the Los Angeles Times.
He said TPWD scientists had recovered a loon and a duck, “both covered with sticky black oil,” from the beachfront area of Galveston on Sunday.
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"Oiled birds are being taken to triage trailers with hot water and basic facilities to begin cleaning the birds, staged near the spill area,” he said.
The cleanup effort is currently blocking about 60 vessels, including cruise ships from entering the channel.
Despite booms in the water, the oil is already washing ashore.
"This stuff should have never made it to the beach," Josh Fundling told the Chronicle. "Those booms are supposed to keep it in the water. You're already seeing dead birds. Give it a couple days and you're going to see dead fish."
“It is an extremely serious spill,” Coast Guard Capt. Brian Penoyer told CNN. “There is a large quantity. It will spread.”