Columbia biologists helped document Gulf oil spill effects

Thursday, November 11, 2010 | 6:15 p.m. CST; updated 2:42 p.m. CST, Monday, November 15, 2010
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologists check a nesting area for oiled pelicans in Mangrove Island, La. BP installed this red boom tube to prevent additional oil from washing up on the shore of the island.

*CORRECTION: John Weber spent a four-day trip on an old shrimp trawler. An earlier version of this article misidentified the individual on the shrimp trawler.

COLUMBIA — Rick Hansen started working for the Columbia office of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service only a few months before a Shell and Texaco pipeline burst 25 miles north of Rolla. It left an impression.

Beginning on Christmas Eve 1988, an estimated 863,000 gallons of oil flowed into Shoal Creek in Vienna, Mo., then into the Gasconade River, and eventually the Missouri River before the spill was contained.


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Every animal that came into contact with the oil died, according to recent reporting by the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, and until a few years ago, residents near the Gasconade River were still seeing an oily sheen on the water. It remains the largest inland oil spill in U.S. history.

Though Hansen didn't work on the Gasconade spill, the destruction it wrought came to mind when he first heard about the Gulf oil spill in April. He, John Weber, Dave Mosby and Trisha Crabill are all biologists with the Columbia contingent of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service who traveled to the Gulf in July and August to help out with the cleanup.

Their work there has contributed to a Department of the Interior report that shows the impact the spill has had so far on birds and other wildlife. The Department of the Interior has collected 6,104 birds that died as a result of the Gulf of Mexico oil spill, noting that 2,263 of those birds showed visible signs of oil.

Mosby said they received some education on the subject while down south. “We were involved peripherally in some spill planning,” he said. “We will be 100 percent better prepared as a result of this experience.”

Hansen and Crabill's work consisted of combing the Gulf looking for birds while Weber and Mosby helped oversee the operation.

Mosby and Weber worked in the Incident Command Center in Houma, La., which Weber described as a “NASA-like space center environment.”

They spent most of their time informing people on the technical and legal processes of the spill. “We were directing teams on where to conduct studies and on how to determine the extent of the oil,” Mosby said.

They worked alongside Department of the Interior and Coast Guard staff and with consultants from British Petroleum. “We were there at the heart of the operations,” Weber said.

They were also each given a few days away from the command center to experience the Gulf and its animals. “Being out in the field was the most eye opening,” Weber said. “Just to see the richness of the ecosystem there.”

Hansen’s temporary job in the Gulf consisted of riding around the Grand Isle Wildlife Area for up to 14 hours a day in a Vessel of Opportunity boat collecting birds with visible signs of oil and bird carcasses that became part of the documentation of the spill's effects. “We would make a field determination on the birds that were oiled,” he said.

Crabill spent 30 days in a different Gulf location doing the exact same task. The majority of the birds that her crew found were of an aquatic nature including many pelicans, terns and plovers.

The long hours that Crabill spent on the boat looking for birds every day resulted in close friendships with the Vessels of Opportunity boat captains. She credits the boat captains with transporting her crew to safe haven areas before the area's thunder and lightning storms developed, "which was almost on a daily basis," Crabill said.  

Mosby agreed. “None of this would have worked without the local boat drivers,” he said.

During a four-day trip on an old shrimp trawler* in some barrier islands, Mosby said the extent of the oil spill was still apparent. “I’m pretty sensitive to oil, and just the vapors coming out of the water made an impression on me,” he said.

Weber and Mosby both spoke positively about the work that BP put into coordinating the clean up. “I was impressed with BP’s willingness to cooperate on many different aspects of the study.” Weber added, “There was a hell of a lot of money being spent down there by BP.”

Hansen said that his main thoughts about disasters always concern the recovery efforts and how the people involved in a spill cleanup can accomplish a lot in a short amount of  time.

The Gulf cleanup was Hansen’s first time working on an oil spill and, he said, “hopefully the last. But you never know.”

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