In The Time Of COVID-19: Alaska Oil Spill Response
Sunday, April 12th was just like any other “normal” day adjusting to our new “normal” of “flattening the curve” during the COVID-19 pandemic. In the preceding weeks, states on the west coast of the United States had instituted #StayHome policies to slow the transmission of the deadly novel virus spreading across the globe since late 2019.
On that evening at 6:15 pm, International Bird Rescue received a call from our long-time client, Alyeska Pipeline Service Company, alerting us to a small oil spill incident in Valdez, Alaska. Immediately, Alyeska activated Barbara Callahan, Bird Rescue’s Response Director, to provide expertise in this developing situation.
Callahan learned that the incident involved a small leak from a sump pump at the Valdez Marine Terminal – on land approximately 650 feet from the shore of Prince William Sound. The mere mention of a spill in this area, immediately brings up terrifying thoughts in the waters made famous by the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill disaster. And while the amount of this oiling was small, the oil seeped into the topsoil and leached into the harbor, where it created a large area of sheen. Worse, the area where the sheen was contained within boom sets was adjacent to a pier where one of the largest and most successful breeding populations of Black-legged Kittiwakes nest annually. There was also concern for the myriad of other fish, seabirds, waterfowl, and marine mammals that were making their annual return to the area for feeding and breeding. To add to the worry, the spill site was very close to a commercial salmon fishery where fry (small juvenile salmon) were scheduled for release within two weeks of this oil spill. There were significant concerns that the resulting sudden influx of prey species to the area would bring in additional animals foraging.
If this event had happened without the existence of a pandemic, the response tactics would be clear: Bird Rescue would deploy one or two field teams to Valdez to capture and stabilize any oil-affected birds. In addition, there would be a team assigned to activate the Alaska Wildlife Response Center (AWRC) in Anchorage. This turn-key standby center is always prepared to offer full rehabilitation of oiled wildlife.
Because of COVID-19 travel and quarantine restrictions, personnel from outside of Valdez were required to go through a 14-day quarantine within the state. In order to quickly initiate wildlife operations in Valdez, Alyeska activated several “Vessels of Opportunity” (“VOO’s”) who are kept on contract and who are pre-trained annually by Alyeska and Bird Rescue to be wildlife observers and capture crews. In addition, a small team of marine mammal experts were brought in from Anchorage and a local veterinarian were enlisted to perform wildlife stabilization.
Two Bird Rescue team members, Julie Skoglund and Liz Montenegro, were deployed to Anchorage to prepare the AWRC, and arrived on April 20th. As with every other part of this response, even this fairly direct deployment required an intensive contact history and a three-day quarantine without leaving their hotel rooms before the team was able to get to work at the AWRC. Once released from their quarantine, they quickly got to work and not only prepared for potential patients, but also performed a deep-clean on the center’s upstairs storage area, creating new storage space and cleaning out out-of-date or unnecessary equipment and supplies.
We are relieved to report that only three animals were oiled during this event, two were deceased prior to collection and one bird was euthanized. While we are never happy to see any oiled animals, this event had the potential to impact thousands more animals, and we breathed a sigh of relief as the spill area became smaller and smaller each day, and the oiled shoreline has been gradually restored. While spill cleanup operations will continue until the environment is restored, as of May 5, our Anchorage team has been demobilized and returned to their homes to self-quarantine for 14 days. Response Director Barbara Callahan and Bird Rescue will continue to be a part of the Spill Response management team providing our best advice and recommendations until cleanup operations are complete.