A Santa Cruz scientist speaks from the Orange County oil spill
On Saturday, an offshore oil pipeline ruptured off the coast of Orange County. The pipeline, owned by Houston-based Amplify Energy spilled an estimated 126,000 gallons of crude oil into the Pacific. Authorities are still investigating the cause.
It’s the worst oil spill since the 2015 Refugio spill. That spill left hundreds of birds and marine mammals dead or injured off the coast of Santa Barbara.
To get an idea of what’s happening on the ground, we spoke with Colleen Young, an environmental scientist with the California Department of Fish and Wildlife. She works at the Office of Spill Prevention and Response in Santa Cruz and arrived on the scene Monday morning. She spoke to us on Tuesday from Dana Point, California.
Young said she spent the day surveying beaches in search of oiled wildlife
Colleen Young: ...and also responding to reports from the public and lifeguards and other beach officials who are finding wildlife and calling them in. And we're going out to respond to those reports.
I actually have not seen a ton of oil on the beach. A lot of the area where I've been working has not had very much product on the beach and actually has not had very many oiled animals that I've seen personally so far.
Jerimiah Oetting: So...is that a good sign?
CY: It’s hard to tell. Often times in oil spills, it takes a couple of days for some wild animals to come ashore. They can get weaker and weaker as the oiling affects them more. We won't really know for sure what the full impact is for several more days.
JO: In this part of Southern California, what are the species you’re most concerned about?
CY: In this area, our biggest concern is birds. They use their feathers to keep them warm, and when the feathers get oiled, they lose their ability to insulate themselves and stay warm. So they're our biggest concern in this area. There are lots of marine mammals around as well. But they are not quite as vulnerable as the birds are to oiling. Certainly it’s not good for them to ingest it or to breathe in the volatiles, so they can be injured as well. But they’re typically not quite as sensitive to the oiling.
JO: Have you personally interacted with any wildlife yet?
CY: I have seen a couple of oiled birds during our surveys and then also yesterday responded to an oiled gull that someone called in,
but right now the animals that have been reported and that I've seen have been pretty active and alert and pretty difficult to catch, so I have not personally caught any oiled animals yet.
JO: What happens when you encounter wildlife or you get a wildlife report? Can you maybe walk me through the process?
CY: So the first thing that we do is look at the, you know, observe the animal from a distance and try to figure out how debilitated it is. We work to keep people and dogs away so that the animal doesn't try to flee so that we can actually assess it and, if warranted, attempt to capture it.
As we’re watching the animals we're looking to see not only if they're visibly oiled, but how their behavior has changed. For an oiled bird example, they'll typically be preening a lot. So using their bill to try to realign the feathers and remove the oil from the feathers.
We’ll also assess how much they're oiled and really weigh whether the risk of capture is warranted for that animal. We may decide that it's going to be too stressful to capture that animal and put it through the rehabilitation process.
We also take into consideration what species it is and how well they typically do with capture and rehabilitation. Some animals are more prone to stress and don't do very well. So we weigh a lot of factors before we even try to attempt to capture the animal.
And then if we do decide that capture is warranted, we have lots of different tools and techniques that we can use depending on what the animal is and what they're doing.
JO: I imagine it must be pretty emotional at times, especially with a big spill where lots of wildlife are impacted. What's your feeling like on the ground when you're working on a spill like this?
CY:I pretty much just focus on the task at hand and try and find animals and get them off the beach so we can help them. I think it's more for me, the sleep deprivation that can add up after several days that can just get a little bit exhausting. But it is hard to see animals that are heavily coated in the oil — to see them suffering. But luckily I have not personally seen any animals that are heavily oiled yet for this spill. So grateful for that.
That was Colleen Young, an environmental scientist with the Office of Spill Prevention and Response in Santa Cruz. She spoke to us on Tuesday from Dana Point. Jerimiah Oetting, KAZU News.