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US Fish & Wildlife Service FieldNotes

Spill on the Upper Mississippi River Threatens Fall Migrating Waterfowl

Region 3, January 3, 2014
Red diesel fuel from the sunken tow can be seen accumulating behind the containment oil booms.
Red diesel fuel from the sunken tow can be seen accumulating behind the containment oil booms. - Photo Credit: n/a
Oil spill responders work to remove diesel fuel from the river.
Oil spill responders work to remove diesel fuel from the river. - Photo Credit: n/a
Red and silver mylar tape on bamboo poles flapping in the wind were used to help keep waterfowl off of the oiled shoreline.
Red and silver mylar tape on bamboo poles flapping in the wind were used to help keep waterfowl off of the oiled shoreline. - Photo Credit: n/a
Contaminants biologist Mike Coffey captures one of the local city ducks from the diesel fuel with U.S. Coast Guard Lt. Colin Fogarty.
Contaminants biologist Mike Coffey captures one of the local city ducks from the diesel fuel with U.S. Coast Guard Lt. Colin Fogarty. - Photo Credit: n/a

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service personnel mobilized over the Thanksgiving holiday and weekend to keep large numbers of migrating diving ducks from getting into oil from a spill on the Upper Mississippi River. A northbound sinking tow, the Stephen L Colby, had to run shore to save the crew after striking a submerged object and taking on water. The vessel, carrying 91,000 gallons of deisel fuel, began todischarge diesel fuel into the river. The City of LeClaire, Iowa, fire department deployed booms out and around the sunken tow within 50 minutes, greatly reducing the size of the emergency response.

On Monday evening November 24th, 2013, U.S. Coast Guard responders stationed in St. Louis, Missouri, and Davenport, Iowa, notified contaminants biologists from the Rock Island, IL Ecological Services Field Office that they were responding to the oil spill and sunken vessel. Contaminants biologist Mike Coffey met U.S. Coast Guard representatives on scene the following morning, where the tow continued to discharge diesel fuel. The U.S. Coast Guard immediately established a Unified Command under the Incident Command System. Coffey organized a Wildlife Branch under the Operations Section, which began additional booming, since a large volume of diesel fuel was accumulating behind the booms set up for the initial response; they also secured the vents for the fuel tanks. The Wildlife Branch began the process of setting up wildlife deterrents, capture, and rehabilitation of oiled wildlife if necessary. It was quickly determined that the oiled river habitat was not within the National Wildlife Refuge System and federally listed species were not at the site. Knowledge and use of the Incident Command System has become standard practice on emergency oil spill response.

This reach of the river in late November and early December is a popular stopover for tens of thousands of diving ducks during their fall migration. There were also a number of mallards from the local residential area and parks around the oil. The wildlife deterrent plans were designed to keep the mallards out of the diesel fuel and keep diving ducks out of the area. Additional contingencies were put into place to haze rafts of diving ducks using the area while the responders worked to remove the oil from behind the booms and pump the remaining fuel from the vessel before lifting it out of the water with large cranes. We dubbed these contingencies as Operation Canvasback. The plan was to use a flotilla of boats to keep pushing the waterfowl to safe areas along the river.

The other closest offices to the spill site were the Savanna District of the Upper Mississippi River National Wildlife Refuge and Port Louisa National Wildlife Refuge. A group of biologists from the Refuge offices and additional staff from the Ecological Services Field Office were organized to conduct shoreline searches for oiled wildlife. The only oiled birds found during the spill response were two mallards and one Canada goose. All of these birds were found dead or died shortly afterwards. There was evidence of previous debilitating conditions in the birds based on their behavior, wounds or emaciation.

Ed Britton from the Savanna District supervised the wildlife reconnaissance and relieved Coffey as the Wildlife Branch Director during periods of the response to manage fatigue from long days. Coffey’s and Britton’s primary tasks were to monitor the movement of diving ducks into the area and be prepared to haze them away during periods of high threat of exposure to the diesel fuel while the responders removed the oil from the river and salvaged the vessel. A total of eight U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service personnel over a period of 10 days supported the emergency spill response. In addition, volunteers from the river clean up group known as Living Lands and Waters supported the responsible party in patrolling areas in boats with high city duck use. The Iowa Department of Natural Resources and the U.S. Coast Guard also provided personnel for the Wildlife Branch.

Other U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service participants included Drew Becker, Eric Tomasovic, Russ Engelke, Bob Clevenstine, Ron Knopic, and Bill Davidson.

Contact Mike Coffey, Environmental Contaminants Program, at michael_coffey@fws.gov.

Contact Info: Mike Coffey, 309-793-5800 X515, michael_coffey@fws.gov