Expert: No major impact of BP oil spill on wildlife expected

2014-03-28T10:45:00Z 2014-03-29T23:59:06Z Expert: No major impact of BP oil spill on wildlife expectedLauri Harvey Keagle and Joseph S. Pete Times Staff Writers

WHITING | The release of up to 1,638 gallons of crude oil into Lake Michigan from BP's Whiting Refinery will likely not harm area wildlife -- in large part -- thanks to the long, brutal winter.

"I'm not anticipating any significant, long-term impacts," Philip Willink, senior research biologist at Chicago's Shedd Aquarium, said Friday.

Willink said he has not been at the scene of the spill due to it being on private BP property. His analysis is based on information being released by BP and federal agencies as well as his knowledge of Lake Michigan aquatic life.

"I think BP got lucky in many ways," Willink said.

One helpful factor was the wind direction at the time of the spill. The wind blew the waves toward the shore, pushing the oil inland instead out out into the lake, Willink said.

The timing was also a plus.

"If this had happened a month ago when the lake was covered with ice, it would have made cleanup efforts much harder," Willink said.

Aquatic life was protected by the lingering cold temperatures.

"When it is cold, the fish go deeper into the water where it is more stable," Willink said. "Because we had such a harsh and brutal winter, the fish are still in deep water. We kind of got lucky that there were no fish to impact."

Willink said the impact on waterfowl is expected to be minimal as well, since the impact would have been if they ate contaminated fish.

The commotion of the cleanup efforts should be scaring the birds away from the area of the oil spill as well, Willink said.

The spill took place Monday after a mechanical glitch sent cooling water tainted with crude oil into the lake.

Cleanup efforts have been under way since, with private contractors hired by BP working at the scene with Representatives from the Environmental Protection Agency, U.S. Coast Guard and Indiana Department of Environmental Management monitoring the process.

BP tripled its estimate Thursday of the amount of oil released into the lake, saying between 630 and 1,638 gallons of oil may have been lost.

"It's still, as far as oil spills go, on the small side," Willink said. "Let's just hope the number doesn't double again tomorrow and again the next day."

The estimate is still preliminary, and weather conditions and safety concerns prevented an eight-member cleanup assessment team from getting a better handle on the extent of the discharge Friday.

BP contractors and members of the Coast Guard and the EPA were unable to complete scheduled surveys, which will instead be done on Sunday if weather conditions permit. High winds and waves made it too unsafe to follow the path of the discharge by boat in order to look for potentially submerged oil.

It also was too hazardous to take underwater samples closer to shore. However, the team was able to walk the shoreline northwest of the refinery, where they found no contamination. 

BP contractors and a Coast Guard on-scene coordinator will remove oiled pebbles Saturday, and they will continue cleanup operations on the rocky shoreline at the southeast end of the cove between the refinery and the ArcelorMittal Indiana Harbor steel mill Sunday.

"Although today's weather conditions limited active cleanup operations, BP continues to ensure personnel in the field are following the assessment team's recommended cleanup techniques along the affected rocky shoreline," said U.S. Coast Guard Petty Officer 1st Class Jeremy Thomas. 

Thomas is the on-scene coordinator representative along with an assessment team member.

"This response has progressed to a point that allows us to proactively engage the cleanup crew and assist them with identification of the oil pebble mixtures identified by the team," he said. "Following the team's survey yesterday, we were happy to see the sandy beach area free of oil and no sheen on the cove. We have, however, recommended continual monitoring of the beach area."

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