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Oil-Soaked Wildlife Turn Up On California Coast, As Cleanup Efforts Continue


Let's go now to Santa Barbara County, Calif., where as much as 105,000 gallons of crude oil spilled out from a broken pipeline into the ocean on Tuesday. As the cleanup efforts continue, workers and volunteers are finding more and more wildlife afflicted by the oil - fish, crustaceans, even octopi. The oil-soaked carcasses of five pelicans were found just yesterday. NPR's Nathan Rott reports that eight others were found alive and brought to a treatment facility in San Pedro.

NATHAN ROTT, BYLINE: The smell of crude oil, like burning rubber, hangs in the halls of the Oiled Bird Care and International Bird Rescue center in San Pedro and saturates its cleaning room.


ROTT: There, a team of four women in bright-yellow protective suits are cleaning off an oil-covered pelican in a tub of sudsy water. One woman holds a bird steady while another splashes water off of its feathers. Veterinarian Christine Fiorello of the Oiled Wildlife Care Network explains the process.

CHRISTINE FIORELLO: So first the birds are soaked in - we call it marinated - in something called methyl soyate. And that's done...

ROTT: A chemical that loosens the oil from the birds' feathers. Then they go through the cleaning process that's happening now, from tub to tub...

FIORELLO: And the tubs are hot water with dilute - a little bit of Dawn. It's about 2 percent solution of Dawn dishwashing detergent.

ROTT: ...Changing tubs as the water blackens with oil. They try to get it done fast, Fiorello says, because it's traumatic to the bird, but that's not always possible.

FIORELLO: This oil has been very tenacious. It's thick. It's tarry. It's - the washes have been very long.

ROTT: As they exit the cleaning room, workers rip at the duct-tape seals on their oil-covered suits. That sort of protection isn't needed in the next room where some of the cleaned birds are being held. Worker Jeanette Bates brings a pelican out with a towel draped over his head and puts him in front of Fiorello.

FIORELLO: Hey, dude. Let me just - I'm going to do an exam.

ROTT: The bird looks far cleaner than the one in the other room, but with a little inspection...

FIORELLO: Oh, there's a nice patch.


FIORELLO: (Laughter) Man...

ROTT: You can see how it clumps, yeah.

FIORELLO: It's really thick, icky. He's got a bunch of patches of oil on him.

ROTT: Which means this one is going to need another wash. Fiorello says that oil is particularly bad for birds, like pelicans, and sea otters. Their fur and feathers act like Gore-Tex, keeping their skin from getting wet. Oil breaks that protection down, causing the birds to lose their much-needed insulation from cold Pacific waters, and eventually, they'll die of hypothermia. Ideally, rescuers can find the animals before that happens. Eric Laughlin is with California's Spill Prevention and Response team which helps coordinate wildlife rescue efforts.

ERIC LAUGHLIN: So far, we've had eight pelicans come into this facility, and we've cleaned three or four of them. So we're still monitoring the situation to see how bad this is, but it's still kind of early to know exactly how bad it is.

ROTT: Officials say it could take months before the spill area is entirely cleaned. Nathan Rott, NPR News, San Pedro, Calif.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Nathan Rott
Nathan Rott is a correspondent on NPR's National Desk, where he focuses on environment issues and the American West.