Suisun Spill

“You have reached the International Bird Rescue Research Center. If you know your party’s extension you may press it at this time. If this is an animal or spill emergency, please press 5 now.”

At 6:30 p.m. on April 27, 2004, at least 40,000 gallons of diesel fuel leaked into the Suisun Marsh. The fuel was bound for Sacramento and Reno via a 14-inch Kinder Morgan pipeline when it pushed its way through a crack and settled over 20 acres of marsh. Operators at Kinder Morgan noticed a drop in pressure soon after the pipe burst. They shut down the line and sent a work crew to look for the leak the following morning. It did not take long to find it. There was enough fuel in the marsh to fill two backyard swimming pools—enough to drive one dozen fully loaded rigs from San Francisco to Los Angeles 43 times.

The diesel pooled just two miles from one of California’s largest oil spill rehab centers. The International Bird Rescue Research Center in Cordelia is home to a full-time veterinarian and a volunteer staff that can deal with the casualties of ecological disasters. The 12,000-square-foot facility can house up to 1,000 birds and hundreds of volunteers. When the diesel spilled into the Suisun Marsh, the IBRRC was ready to deal with the consequences.

At 2 p.m. on April 28, Kinder Morgan called the Department of Fish and Game’s Office of Spill Prevention and Response. Fish and Game sent a crew to assess the damage and called the Coast Guard to help with the cleanup. Within minutes, wildlife veterinarian Michael Ziccardi’s phone rang. When a call comes in to the IBRRC and the caller presses “5,” Ziccardi, D.V.M, Ph.D. knows about it. He is in charge of the Oiled Wildlife Care Network (OWCN), a group of 24 rehab centers and animal hospitals (including the IBRRC). He’s a professor at the University of California, Davis, and has been a high-ranking officer in the network since 2000. Before that, he was a contract oil-spill vet. On April 28, Ziccardi and volunteers from the rescue center drove into the marsh.

The spill site is at the end of Chadborne Road, past a rusty shed surrounded by broken roofing tiles, a field full of cows and rusted farm equipment, a coal-colored barn and a bright yellow sign that reads “pavement ends.” A gravel road curves around the low brown buildings of the Drake Sprig Duck Club and past a gravel lot filled with decaying motor homes and washing machines. From there it heads toward the Union Pacific Line, which strikes north by northeast through the marsh. The pipeline hugs the tracks, three feet under. When it burst, the fuel pushed its way through the mud and settled in shallow pools among tule reeds, arrow grass, cattail, coyote bush, pickle weed and fennel. In some places, puddles of fuel were 4 inches deep. Ziccardi and his team found a small work crew and men from Fish and Game and the Coast Guard. He also found wildlife covered in fuel.

There is really no clear way to know how many animals came into contact with the fuel. Frightened, sick or injured animals hide in the marsh’s thick vegetation and labyrinthine system of waterways and berms. They are nearly impossible to find and only a handful were rescued. The team collected seven ducklings, two adult ducks, and one male beaver. The beaver’s lungs were burned from the fumes. It was convulsing violently and could not breathe and was later put to sleep. Other animals were found dead, including four muskrats, three sand pipers and one plover. The survivors were taken to the IBRRC.

An oiled bird must be stabilized. Oil clumps the feathers together and disrupts waterproofing and insulation. Spill birds are cold, wet and hungry. A bath can cause shock, hypothermia and even death—a bird must be strong enough to survive the ordeal. When it reaches the rehab center, it is quickly rinsed and placed in a net-bottom cage. Netting is essential for water birds, which rarely stand or sit on land. A few minutes on a hard surface can cause blisters, scrapes and worse. The bird is fed a nutritious slurry of fish, water and vitamins. If the bird has swallowed any oil or fuel, it is fed charcoal, which absorbs contaminants. When it regains its strength, it’s ready for the birdbath. A mixture of Dawn dishwashing detergent and water is the most effective cleanser, cutting through petroleum products as easily as it cuts through baked-on casserole grease. It can take up to 45 minutes and 300 gallons of water to clean an oiled bird. After cleaning, the bird is dried and allowed to rest and preen. When a bird preens, it rearranges the Velcro-like hooks in its feathers. Natural oils do not waterproof or insulate birds. Properly preened feathers are woven so tightly that water cannot pass through them. This watertight weave keeps water out and air in.

After being cleaned, the bird is transferred to the IBRRC’s rehab resort where it can recuperate in aviaries and pools. It can take from one to three weeks for a bird to recover from a spill. Diesel fuel, jet fuel or gasoline can burn skin, and fumes can cause neurological damage and burn lung tissue, adding to recovery times.

Ziccardi’s first spill was at Ballona Creek in Long Beach. It was also a diesel fuel spill. Unlike the Suisun Marsh, Ballona Creek is open water. There, injured birds were easy to capture. Still, Ziccardi was overwhelmed by what he found. He was greeted by hundreds of black ducks, American coots and mud hens, all covered in fuel. He and a team of volunteers labored into the night. One-hundred-sixty birds survived the spill. “It was a very strong experience for me,” he says. “I learned what an emergency vet can do. It’s why I’m still in the program.”

California is an oil spill hot spot. Ziccardi estimates that there is more than one spill a day in the state. In 1996 a valve was opened on the Cape Mohican while the ship was dry-docked, and 40,000 gallons of fuel spilled into the dock. In 1998 more than 400,000 gallons of oil leaked out of a storage tank at Shell’s Martinez refinery. Shell spent more than $20 million to settle damage claims. In 1980 10,000 gallons of oil leaked from a container at the Tosco Refinery and into the Carquinez Strait.

One of California’s biggest spills spawned the IBRRC. In January 1971, two Standard Oil tankers wrecked in the San Francisco Bay, spilling 800,000 gallons of oil. Alice Berkener, a local nurse, volunteered to help clean and rehabilitate some of the birds who were oiled in the spill. She wasn’t alone. Hundreds of inexperienced volunteers swarmed the shores in search of oiled birds. Some even set up shop in local hotels, washing birds in bathtubs. At the time, no one in the ramshackle rehab centers knew how to properly care for the birds. They were put in cages, fed milk and bread and even bathed in mineral oil. Only a handful of the 7,000 birds that were collected survived. Berkener decided that the volunteers could have done better. In April 1971, she and her team filed for nonprofit status. Their first dedicated rescue center was in Aquatic Park in Berkeley. Since then they’ve helped with almost 100 spills in Alaska, Spain, Brittany, the Galapagos Islands and South America. The IBRRC now has two rescue centers, one in Cordelia and one in San Pedro.

Jay Holcomb was a volunteer during the 1971 San Francisco spill.

“There were hallways full of cat cages, stacked to the ceiling,” he says. “They were filled with grebes. We called them ‘red screamers’—they have bright red eyes and this piercing scream. Most of them died.”

Holcomb was a volunteer at the center until 1986, when Berkener hired him. He worked at every major oil spill the center handled, including a six-month stint at the 1989 Exxon Valdez spill in Alaska. In that same year, Berkener put him in charge of the IBRRC. Now he spends more time in an office than at spill sites. Instead of being a member of the emergency rescue crew, he promotes education and stewardship. Educated people are less likely to harm birds and other animals, he says. The San Pedro research center has classrooms and a gallery where students can watch vets care for birds, and there are plans for a similar setup at the Cordelia center.

Holcomb is proud to be part of the OWCN. Few states have such an effective system for dealing with spills, he says. The OWCN was established in 1990 and is funded by interest from a $50 million trust fund. To raise the money, legislators imposed a 25-cent tax on every barrel of oil brought into the state. California’s rapacious appetite for the stuff sent cash sluicing into the treasury. Now the network and OWCN are self-sustaining. Many of the organizations in the network have a few full-time staff members and take on volunteers when needed. Unfortunately, volunteers are always needed at the IBRRC.

“It’s not just crude oil or fuel,” says Megan Prelinger, the rehab center’s only full-time managerial volunteer. “It’s cooking oil, fishing line, plastics, all the things we throw away.” Prelinger joined the rescue center in the summer of 2000. Since then she’s steadily moved her way up the ranks. She was amazed by how easy it was to learn and participate in the center. Within a few months, she was cleaning and feeding oiled birds and training new volunteers. The center receives a steady stream of injured animals. In the spring, it is crowded with orphaned or abandoned ducklings. There is an almost constant stream of gulls that fall into vats of oil used for french fries. The center responds to about one major petroleum spill a month.

Jon Tarpley, an environmental scientist with Fish and Game, estimates cleanup of the Suisun Marsh will take several months. Fifty to 60 percent of the fuel will evaporate in a matter of days, but a thin layer of residue will remain on plants and mud for months. If cleanup crews miss any, it will degrade naturally over time.

On May 2, Kinder Morgan finished repairing the ruptured pipeline. At 2:30 p.m. they turned it back on. Even so, the 37-year-old pipeline’s days are numbered. The April spill was the second on the line in 10 years. In 1996 a hairline crack was discovered in Vacaville. According to Jerry Englehardt with Kinder Morgan media relations, an indeterminate amount of fuel leaked out over an unknown period of time. The cleanup is still under way. Englehardt says that the company has had plans to replace the entire pipeline for more than two years. During that time it has been wrestling with government and environmental agencies to find an acceptable route for the new line. Within a year, he says, a new 20-inch line will be installed and the old pipe will be taken offline.

The company will pay for the cleanup in Suisun and for any damages to local wildlife. Kinder Morgan is the largest pipeline company in the United States with more than 25,000 miles of its pipeline crisscrossing the lower 48, pumping 2 million barrels of petroleum products every day. The company and its subsidiaries are valued at approximately $24 billion.

Englehardt could not put a price tag on the Suisun spill. “We hope to have an estimate as to what it will cost very soon,” he says.

For more information, log onto the IBRRC at or call (707) 207-0380.

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