Even though I don’t live near any ocean I am distraught every time I hear about another oil spill into one.  The most recent occurred on May 20th on the California coast near Santa Barbara, the same area where in 1969 one of the worst oil spills ever occurred, when an offshore well blew and poured an estimated 3 million gallons of crude oil along 30 miles of coast.  At least 9,000 birds died as a result. It was so catastrophic that it inspired an environmental movement that brought about a number of federal and state laws designed to protect the natural world.

Even with these laws in place, we have since had the Exxon Valdez disaster and the even more devastating BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill.  In between there have been countless others, both on land and in the water that don’t show up on the daily news, but bring death and destruction just the same. Loss of human life thankfully is rare with these incidents, but we will never know just how many sea creatures have perished as a result.

oil spills map

A map showing some of the various oil spills in the U.S. as of 2013.

The accident on May 20th  was due to a 24-inch diameter on-shore pipeline that ruptured and released 101,000 gallons of oil into the ocean, creating a slick 9 miles long. The company responsible is Plains All American Pipeline, which happens to have one of the worst records of violations listed by the U.S. Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Administration.  According to the EPA, between 2004 and 2007 its pipelines discharged 273,420 gallons of crude oil into waters or shorelines in Texas, Louisiana, Oklahoma and Kansas. The company and its subsidiaries handle more than 4 million barrels of crude and other liquid fuels daily. And this is just one of many companies that extract and transport oil across our country.

boots in oily beach

A worker stands in the oil spilled in Santa Barbara, California.

I find it hard to look at photos that show the unfortunate animals that have been covered by this black goo. Current reports say that this most recent disaster killed 22 birds and 14 marine mammals, while another 40 birds and 28 marine mammals have been rescued.  Most have been taken to SeaWorld San Diego’s Oiled Wildlife Care Center, which is the primary care facility for sea mammals facing this trauma. Not surprisingly the work takes a toll on the hearts and souls of the people trying to save the animals.

According to the Sea World Veterinarian, all the birds and mammals first need to be stabilized and then washed. “We want to wash [the oil] off them so they don’t continue to absorb it through their skin or continue to inhale” the fumes, which he said can damage their lungs and cause long-term effects.  If a female sea lion absorbs the oil, her first pup afterward may not survive.

This is a double whammy for the California sea lions, because pups have been washing up on the coastline either dead or near death from starvation. The reason seems to be a change or drastic reduction in the fish populations along the coast. This spill will also impact people who enjoy or fish for a living, since a 23-mile by 7-mile area was closed to this activity.

Pelican flying over oil ocean

A brown pelican flying off the Santa Barbara coast where the oil slick spread.


One of the oiled brown pelicans we discovered in Louisiana in March of 2012.

For sea birds, like the brown pelicans, coming in contact with an oil spill can quickly cause their feathers to lose all insulating value. I never thought I would encounter a bird in this condition, but sadly I did in Louisiana a couple years ago.  We were in a fishing village called Venice, near to where the Mississippi River meets the Gulf of Mexico. We were taken there by a man from New Orleans and as we walked around the campground area we smelled what seemed like decaying fish.  After we turned a corner we saw a small group of pelicans standing together with their wings outstretched.  They seemed to be shivering, which is not normal behavior and as we got closer we could see that their feathers were all matted down with some sort of oil.  Under their feet were more already dead and decaying birds.  It was an awful encounter and we immediately tried to contact the Louisiana Fish and Game department.  They did not have any report of an oil spill, but somewhere these birds had encountered it.  We tried to locate a wildlife rescue organization without success, so we could only hope that the State Agency did something to try to save the remaining birds.

For those of us who do not live near an ocean there are many other companies who build and maintain pipelines that cross lands next to rivers or other wetlands. Here in northern Minnesota, Enbridge Energy, a Canadian company wants to locate new pipelines and expand existing ones carrying crude oil from North Dakota on routes that traverse land perilously close to pristine lakes and rivers. Opponents have proposed other routes, which are longer and therefore more costly, but reduce the threat to our water resources.  The lifespan of these lines are estimated to be around 30 to 50 years, but the EPA reports that 99% of pipelines will have some ‘incident’ during their existence.

While companies extracting and transporting oil have the ultimate responsibility to do so as safely as possible, all of us have to also accept responsibility, since we are complicit in our need and use of the byproducts of oil.  It’s not only the gasoline for our cars, but all of the plastic products we use on a daily basis.  Supporting, promoting, demanding and using alternative energy sources are the only real solutions to this ongoing problem.

The birds suffering from oil spills are not the ones who will come to our feeders, but I believe that anyone who cares enough for birds to put up feeders and buy feed for them cares about all life forms.  We cannot be complacent when we know there are myriad animals being caught by these unintentional oil spills.  They have no voice to protest their fate and so we must raise our voices to come to their defense.

By Kate Crowley

Brown Pelican photo by Mike Link