Miss. River Oil Spill Hits Environment

An oil spill has shut down the mouth of the Mississippi River, causing shipping delays. Steven Alexander, of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, says there has been significant damage to batture lands and some 100 oiled birds have been spotted.

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MICHELE NORRIS, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

And I'm Melissa Block.

The Coast Guard commander of the Port of New Orleans says the Mississippi River should be fully reopened by the end of tomorrow. Last week's oil spill in New Orleans closed about 100 miles of the river to the Gulf of Mexico and idled nearly 200 ships and barges.

Ecologists, including Steve Alexander, are trying to figure out the extent of damage to ecosystems and wildlife. Mr. Alexander is with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. He joins us from the incident command center in Belle Chasse, Louisiana. Thanks for being with us.

Mr. STEVE ALEXANDER (Ecologist, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service): Thanks, Melissa. Good to be with you.

BLOCK: And what have you been seeing as you've been out along the Mississippi in terms of damage to the river and to wildlife?

Mr. ALEXANDER: We've seen significant numbers of oiled habitats, the batture lands - those are the alluvial wetland areas that are between the river and the levees. And then we've also had some observations of oiled birds probably in the neighborhood of about 100 so far. And they're very difficult to catch at this time. But there are some significant areas of oiling that we're trying to address and make sure that these areas get cleaned up, and also, where we can put out hazing equipment to try to deter their use by different varieties of wildlife.

BLOCK: This hazing equipment sounds interesting. I understand it's big noisemaking machines to try to keep birds from landing there?

Mr. ALEXANDER: Well, they're actually propane scare cannons. They set off a loud sound like a shotgun. And the birds typically respond to that initially. But over time, they become somewhat habituated to the sound. So we're deploying those at various locations today along, approximately, 20 to 25 miles of the river.

BLOCK: You mentioned that the oiled birds are hard to catch, why is that?

Mr. ALEXANDER: Well, typically, with these batture lands, these alluvial wetlands have a lot of debris. There were leftover remnants of, basically, of Hurricane Katrina, and it's very difficult for us to get our equipment and our personnel into these areas to try to catch these birds.

BLOCK: How bad do they look?

Mr. ALEXANDER: They vary in percent oiling, anywhere from probably 10 percent up to 20 or 50 percent on the wading birds, and then the duck species that we've observed are pretty much 100 percent oiled.

BLOCK: So you're seeing them, you're just not able to get to them.

Mr. ALEXANDER: That's right. We're either seeing them during aerial reconnaissance surveys or by boat or actually driving on the levees down the river.

BLOCK: If you were to be able to get to them, what would you do?

Mr. ALEXANDER: We have a contractor, a rehabilitation contractor that has set up a facility in Venice, Louisiana. And if we do get birds in hand, then we try to make contact with that facility and transfer the birds to the rehabilitation folks.

BLOCK: We were talking about the birds that have been affected. Have you seen any other animals that show signs of contamination from the oil?

Mr. ALEXANDER: Well, we've had reports of two alligators, two beavers and one muskrat so far.

BLOCK: And what would you do about those animals?

Mr. ALEXANDER: Typically, we would have a contractor, a nuisance animal control official here in the New Orleans area, go and try to capture the alligator and then we would just try to get the oil off of him and then basically, release him back into uncontaminated habitats.

BLOCK: Who has the job of cleaning up the alligator?

Mr. ALEXANDER: Well, it has to be someone that's pretty good at wrestling alligators, I guess.

BLOCK: How worried are you about the wetlands areas, the wildlife refuges farther south toward the delta?

Mr. ALEXANDER: They seem to be in pretty good shape right now. We don't have any reports of black oil any further south than roughly Pointe a la Hache. And we're surveying those areas on a daily basis. The Coast Guard and NOAA are doing overflights and surveying that. So I think the wetland areas, right at this moment, look pretty good.

BLOCK: If the river does reopen to shipping traffic tomorrow, I would imagine that that would complicate your efforts out there to clean things up and to find affected wildlife.

Mr. ALEXANDER: It does. It makes it very challenging. Those large boats produce very large wakes and you pretty much have to keep your boats perpendicular to the wakes. So it makes it challenging, but we try to adapt to those conditions each day.

BLOCK: Mr. Alexander, when you're out there looking at the oil spill and trying to figure out what to do, how bad does it smell and how bad does it look?

Mr. ALEXANDER: Well, it looks pretty bad on the ground in some places. And as far as the habitats, though, I mean, I've seen a lot of these spills in the past and it's always a mess. It takes some time, but sooner or later, you get to the point where you're looking pretty good.

BLOCK: Steve Alexander, thanks very much.

Mr. ALEXANDER: Thank you, Melissa.

BLOCK: Steve Alexander is an ecologist with U.S. Fish and Wildlife. He was speaking with us from the incident command center in Belle Chasse, downriver from New Orleans.

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