No clues to source of oil that fouled wildlife

khopkins@adn.comNovember 13, 2012 

Julie Skoglund of International Bird Rescue in Los Angeles checks a thick-billed murre after cleaning the lightly-oiled bird at the Alaska Wildlife Response Center Tuesday morning Nov. 13, 2012, in south Anchorage. St. Lawrence Island residents have discovered several oiled animals this fall.

ERIK HILL — Anchorage Daily News Buy Photo

Two more oiled animals may have been found on St. Lawrence Island, bringing to seven the number of sea birds and seals discovered with signs of a mystery oil near remote Bering Sea villages.

A team of U.S. Coast Guard oil spill experts, villagers and other state and federal investigators searched the island over the weekend but were unable to find the source of the pollution, the Coast Guard said. The searchers left the island Monday, ahead of an approaching storm.

The investigation will continue as authorities await new test results to determine if all the animals were exposed to the same kind of oil, said Petty Officer David Mosley. That evidence may help solve what has been an unusual case for the Coast Guard.

When the agency investigates pollution, it usually knows where the pollution is coming from, Mosley said. This time, he said, "We have to take all the puzzle pieces as we get them to fit them into a clear picture."

Preliminary testing of a spotted seal killed by a St. Lawrence Island subsistence hunter Oct. 26 revealed the presence of some kind of heavy oil, according to the DEC.

More precise test results will take longer, but should help better identify the substance.

"Is it a lube oil? Is it a bunker oil? The preliminary tests are starting to lead us away from things like diesel fuel," Mosley said.

Meanwhile, a thick-billed murre seabird with a light coating of oil on its breast was captured on the island Friday, he said. Mosley said he doesn't know how the bird was captured. It was being cleaned Tuesday in Anchorage by International Bird Rescue.

The bird was skinny and dehydrated, which is common for an oiled bird, said Barbara Callahan, response services director for the rescue non-profit.

The organization hopes to release the bird as early as this week, she said. "He's looking perky. He's bright, alert and responsive."

Another discovery came on Monday when a hunter near Gambell shot a seal that may have had oil residue on it, Mosley said. The hunter noticed "a light coating of a brown substance along its back," according to the DEC.

The Coast Guard and DEC search team took hair samples of the animal for analysis.

Shipping activity is increasing in the Bering Strait but the Coast Guard is not aware of any recent spills or sunken ships that could account for the oiled animals, Mosley said.

Investigators heard reports of old oil drums near Savoonga that might have caused the spill, but searchers visited the area ruled and the drums out as a potential source, Mosley said.

With the help of village residents, the Coast Guard and DEC team also searched hunting grounds where oiled animals had been shot as well as a landfill and other areas but found no sign of where the oil is coming from. Soil samples from the landfill will be tested in Anchorage for signs of oil, according the Department of Environmental Conservation.

A Russian ocean trawler sank May 26 in the Bering Sea after hitting an iceberg, according to maritime news sites. Mosley said the Coast Guard has no reason to believe the oil is pollution from that vessel. Mosley said the trawler was in Russian waters southwest of St. Lawrence Island, but said he didn't know about how far away it was when it sank. "Our Russian counterparts say they don't have any open or pending pollution responses," he said. "At this time we don't have any indication to lead us in that direction."

In addition to the animals found oiled on St. Lawrence Island, a spotted seal killed by a hunter Sept. 3 near Shishmaref also appeared to have signs of oil on it. Samples from that seal are being analyzed to determine if the oil is the same substance as that found on the birds and seals near Gambell, Mosley said.




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