MATAGORDA ISLAND, TX — Recovery efforts continue weeks after a barge accident in the Houston Ship Channel dumped tens of thousands of barrels of oil into Galveston Bay. That oil kills wildlife and damages the environment. But some are worried the cleanup itself could also disturb the ecosystem along the Texas Gulf Coast. Nowhere is that threat more apparent than in the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge.
Every morning this week, hundreds of workers have gone out to Matagorda Island, a part of that refuge, to try to remove the oil. On a recent tour organized by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the response team appeared to work with great care, gingerly scraping thin layers of oil-drenched sand away with shovels, then depositing it into nearby excavators for delivery into larger dump trucks. Over ten tons of sand has been removed so far.
Randal Ogrydziak, the U.S. Coast Guard captain who is one of the coordinators of the spill response, likens the painstaking process to shoveling a gravel driveway after a snow storm.
“You can think of it as the snow is the oil — not that thick — the driveway is the good sand underneath, and you just want to take bad stuff and get rid of that, and leave the good sand,” Ogrydziak says. “We don’t want to dig up the whole beach here. That’s not what we want to do.”
Ogrydziak’s concern that the cleanup could do “more damage than the oil” is not limited to the sand. This thin barrier island, like the rest of the National Wildlife Refuge, is not meant for people. Now it’s home to ATVs, bobcat excavators, dump trucks, helicopters, and hundreds of response personnel. They – and the oil – all arrived right as migratory animals are passing through on their annual trip.
“The oil spill could not have happened at a worse time,” says Nancy Brown, a spokesperson for U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. “You have these birds that have migrated literally across the Gulf of Mexico. They arrive here, they are exhausted, [and] all they want to do is get something to eat, get something to drink, rest, and then continue their migration.”
But Brown says if they’re constantly being disturbed by the cleanup activity, “they’re not only not eating, they’re wasting calories trying to get away.”
They can also be spooked from their nests by the activity, leaving eggs and young animals vulnerable to predators. Workers here say they’re doing their best by limiting trips to and from the island, being careful with vehicles, and enforcing a “flight ceiling” on helicopters so they don’t disturb the birds.
Of particular concern is the endangered whooping crane. This refuge is home to the only naturally-occurring flock of those birds in the world. Around 300 whooping cranes winter here, and many have not yet left for their summer grounds in Canada.
Right as the cranes leave, the Kemps-Ridley sea turtle arrives. That’s also an endangered species. It lays its eggs on the same beaches – now oily beaches – where the response crews are working with excavators and dump trucks to remove the oil.
Jeremy Edwardson, a Fish and Wildlife Biologist, says it will be difficult to measure the full impact of the spill and the recovery efforts.
“I don’t think we’ll ever understand it,” says Edwardson. “There’s some stuff to document and it’s easy to document. But there’s also the potential for oil to be here for years, so it’s possibly going to be an ongoing response.”