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Fighting the spill

FWS Wildlife Biologist Scott Ralston holds a laughing gull captured during part of the bird rescue on the Gulf Coast.

WINDOM -- Before oil washed up on U.S. coastlines, the director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) had alerted staff throughout the nation to be ready. Their help and expertise would be needed.

Four staff members of the Windom Wetland Management District Office (WWM) have already answered the call.

On April 20, the British Petroleum (BP) Deepwater Horizon oil rig was about 41 miles off the Louisiana coast when an explosion and fire killed eleven people and started the worst oil spill in history. The rig sank in 5,000 feet of water and reports began to filter in about a 5-mile-long oil slick. By May, there were reports the oil had reached land.

FWS Wildlife Biologist Scott Ralston was the first Windom-based staff member to head south. In mid-July, he spent 16 days in Grand Isle, La., as part of a bird rescue and recovery team.

Prescribed Fire Specialist Eric Earhart, Supervisory Range Technician Andy Wall and Lead Range Technician Tammy Johnson, fire staff for WWM, were deployed in late July -- Wall and Johnson to Perdido Key, Fla., and Earhart to Moss Point, Miss.

"We were resource advisors, there to ensure that national resources were protected," Wall explained.

"Protected from further damage from the actual cleanup efforts," Ralston added.

They worked with the cleanup crews, informing them of issues such as turtle nests or fragile vegetation.

"It's a job we've all been trained for, but never actually had to fulfill before," Earhart said. "You learn as you go and ask a lot of questions."

All four had followed the stories about the oil spill and thought they knew what to expect upon arrival, but the reality was a shock.

"There is just nothing to compare it to," Wall stated.

All are trained to respond to All Risk Assignments and as part of a federal agency, are given training in incident command.

"We are sent to handle all sorts of odd things at times," Earhart explained.

"We never do the same thing everyday," Johnson added. "You never know what you're going to end up doing."

Wall was in New Orleans, La. after Hurricane Katrina, and performed tasks that ranged from cutting down trees to helping organize food and water supplies.

"We have to be ready to go on a short noticed, because every time they call, they basically want you there yesterday," Earhart stated.

"Between the four of us, we've been to every state west of the Mississippi and most of the ones east of it, too," Wall explained.

On the Gulf Coast, the species may be different than what they work with in Windom, but the ecological principles are the same.

On the sandy beaches, the four saw plenty of evidence of oil -- tar balls, sheen, sludge -- but the movement of water and sand changed the sight each day.

"Not all areas are the same. In some, no big equipment is allowed," Earhart explained. "In certain wilderness areas, everything had to be done by hand. It is tedious and time consuming.

"After a day of cleanup, one section of beach looked clean, but there would be more oil exposed the next. Wind or wave action exposed things that were down a foot."

While Ralston was collecting oiled birds, dead and alive, the jobs of the other three were different. Earhart said he was to mark the location of birds he found and make an appropriate phone call. Johnson and Wall worked the same area, but Johnson was on night detail.

"It was a lot cooler at night and we got a lot done," she said. "We used some equipment at night that wasn't allowed during the day."

With the daytime heat, sifters would simply break tar balls into smaller particles instead of straining them out of the sand. But as things cooled off, the bigger pieces would stick together, allowing them to be removed. Evening and nighttime offered a different challenge, however.

"We had to be careful, because sea turtles are active at night," Johnson explained. "During nesting season, turtles come on shore at night and the hatchlings crawl out to the water."

The sunlight was a major consideration, not just because of the consistency of oil, but because of the danger. Heat stress and dehydration were a constant worry. Each day, the heat index chart was consulted to determine how long a crew could work. At certain times of day, the crews could work 40 minutes before having to take 20 minutes off, but during the hottest times, those numbers were reversed.

At Moss Point, Earhart was working on islands off the coast. The logistics of moving work crews to the various islands was a time-consuming process. From floating barges to smaller boats that could land on the islands, crews were moved, along with every piece of equipment they needed, including water, food, shade tents and protective gear.

"The locations were remote and there was no easy way to do it," Earhart said. "And with boat issues, mechanical issues - just one little thing could hold up the whole show."

One thing he found interesting was all the rules and regulations FWS observed, while any member of the public could land on an island and was not under the same constraints.

"Dune habitat is very sensitive and certain areas were closed. In others there were no loud noises allowed," he explained. "We wore protective gear and Tyvec booties over our boots.

"Then Joe Public would come by on a party boat, and had their kids walking through those dunes barefoot."

Where Ralston was stationed, beaches and waters were closed to recreation and fishing. And the damage done by a bird rescue had to be weighed against the life of one bird.

"If you remove a tern from a colony, a gull can come in and attack the nest," he said. "We couldn't go on island to rescue one oiled bird and sacrifice hundreds of others."

Ralston had noted the criticism early on in the spill when local groups wanted to come in and help, but were turned away.

"It does take training," he stated. "The big picture needs to be looked at because we don't want to enhance the negative impact."

There is also a strict chain of custody issue that needs to be followed in the collection of dead birds, oiled birds and other wildlife.

"This is going to be an ongoing legal case," Ralston explained. "Evidence has to be preserved and there is strict protocol."

In some areas, removing the oil would be more damaging to vegetation and earth.

"How do you clean oil out of grass and mud?" Ralston asked.

Each of the four came away from the experience with ideals and thoughts reinforced.

"For me, it was important to see it first-hand," Earhart stated. "The media portrayed it one way or the other, but the reality is different. A lot of people, this will kill them financially. A lot of people will make a lot of money. Some lost their livelihoods, and some locals got jobs."

"It made me think a lot about industry and greed," Ralston said. "There is talk of how the government needs more regulation, but if the big money companies monitored themselves and made a point to be safer, a lot of this could have been avoided. Industry should regulate itself and take responsibility."

For Johnson, the realization of how far reaching the effects of one single event will be was eye-opening.

"The ecological troubles, the effect on the economy, both local and country-wide -- and it was one incident," she stated.

Wall said the experience reinforced the knowledge that industry and people need to be more aware of their impact to the environment.

"People need to realize that we and the environment are not two separate things," he said. "We can enjoy our natural resources and protect them."