Times-Picayune: Duck and Uncover

Still tarred by the bad publicity from the Exxon Valdez disaster and other oil spills, is teaching workers how to care for 'oiled' birds a PR stunt or a sign of a more proactive industry?

Dressed in a white jumpsuit and rubber gloves, Lisa Parker, a wildlife rescue worker from Houston, stood before a metal washtub filled with water and Dawn dish-washing detergent and explained the finer points of bathing birds.

"Always rub with the feather structure; that's how you're going to get most of the oil off," she told the assembled audience of oil industry executives, government regulators and members of the Coast Guard.

"Remember, hold that beak," Parker's teaching partner, Leesa Young, chimed in, as the two women lathered up a domestic white duck in the washtub.

"On top, you do more of a stroke," Young said. "Sometimes the oil is on so thick that you actually take the soap and squirt it on top of them."

Fifteen years after the Exxon Valdez spilled 11 million gallons of crude oil off the coast of Alaska, this is what it's come to: Rather than trying to pretend spills never happen, the oil industry is taking a proactive approach to dealing with their unpleasant effects.

Sponsored by Dominion Exploration & Production Inc. , the duck-cleaning demonstration at Audubon Park on Friday was designed to train volunteers who can be called on to help clean oil from wildlife if there's a bad oil spill. The all-day education program was conducted by Wildlife Rehab & Education of Houston, a nonprofit group that works with oil companies to rescue birds after spills. Also participating was Clean Gulf Associates, an oil industry cooperative that maintains $20 million worth of bird-cleaning equipment stored in trailers at several locations along the Gulf Coast.

CGA, as the group is known, is made up of 120 oil and gas companies that operate in the Gulf. The firm provided the equipment used for the demonstration: long, stainless steel tables; trough-like portable sinks; hoses, washtubs, Tyvek jump suits and dishwashing liquid -- all of which was transported from Houma in a trailer and set up in a parking lot near the zoo.

Wildlife Rehab and Education brought the duck.

Students learning the basics of wildlife rescue included employees of the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality, the U.S. Department of the Interior's Minerals Management Service and ChevronTexaco Corp.

"A lot of the oil companies do these things around the country," said Bob Thomas, director of Loyola University's Center for Environmental Communications. "The companies know that people know that accidents occur, and when accidents occur, the animals that get hurt usually evoke a strong emotional response from people.

"The basic subliminal message here is that, 'We're in this with you and we're going to make it better for the animals that live out there,' " he said.

The industry's attitude has changed from years ago, said Frankie Palmisano, response manager for CGA in New Orleans. The industry formed CGA more than 30 years ago as a way to comply with federal laws requiring that companies operating in the Gulf have systems to respond to spills. For a long time, Palmisano said, CGA kept a low profile, preferring that the public not know who they were.

"I feel like being proactive is the way to go," he said. "It's a given, there are some oil spills that are going to happen from time to time, but when they do happen, we're prepared."

When Hurricane Ivan stormed into the oil fields of the Gulf of Mexico in September, for instance, the hurricane wreaked havoc on the production platforms, drilling rigs and underwater pipelines concentrated in the area.

Among the infrastructure damaged in the storm was the juncture of a pipeline owned by Shell Pipeline Corp. and BP America Inc. According to the Coast Guard, about 201,600 gallons of oil were spilled about 30 miles east southeast of Venice. CGA sprung into action and moved one of its equipment trailers from Houma to Venice. Meanwhile, after being contacted by Shell and BP, Wildlife Rehab and Education mobilized a team of its workers from Texas, who used the equipment to rescue 48 brown pelicans, seagulls and sandpipers.

Only about half of the birds had been "oiled" and needed to be bathed, said Sharon Schmalz, Wildlife Rehab's executive director. The other injured birds were beaten up by the storm. Although Wildlife Rehab is a nonprofit, the oil company responsible for the accident compensates the organization when it responds to a spill.

Schmalz concurred that the companies have become more proactive in the past 20 years, sponsoring workshops, creating oil spill contingency plans and generally owning up to the fact that spills occur.

"If you are going to be responsible, you have to acknowledge that problems can happen," she said.

Still, not everyone takes the industry's activities at face value.

Pratap Chatterjee is project director for CorpWatch, an activist group in Oakland, Calif., whose motto is "holding corporations accountable."

Chatterjee said programs such as the duck-cleaning seminar are an example of "greenwashing," a sort of public relations stunt designed to burnish the image of a corporate polluter. Chatterjee said the public is well aware of what oil spills can do to wildlife, and the industry is being proactive not only to avoid spills but also to build a sense of goodwill in case an accident happens.

"I think they're just trying to get brownie points ahead of time, and saying, 'We are people who care about the environment," he said of Dominion. "If there's a spill, people will say, 'Oh, Dominion, they're the ones who have gone out and taught people how to clean birds.' "

David McBride, director of Dominion's environmental compliance programs, said the company is sponsoring the oiled bird workshop not as a public relations stunt but because it "is the right thing to do."

Peggy Cole, a spokeswoman for Dominion, noted that Dominion doesn't sell directly to consumers, so there's little benefit the company receives with potential customers. Furthermore, although the session was held on zoo grounds, it took place in a spot that no casual visitor would have stumbled across. In any case, McBride said, Dominion has not had a spill in the seven years he has been with the company.

Whatever Dominion's motives are, it's unlikely any of the volunteers trained during the session actually will be called on to help clean birds, said Michele Johnson, a Wildlife Rehab rescue worker. The nonprofit has its own team of skilled workers, and volunteers would be needed only if there were a major spill that oiled more than 200 birds, she said.

But she said if the worst-case scenario happens -- if the Gulf Coast suffered its own Valdez -- then having a small army of trained workers on hand will be essential to save the birds.

Although Loyola's Thomas said there have been no controlled studies proving that cleaning oiled birds is an effective way to save them, Johnson said she has seen ample anecdotal evidence to believe it.

"We know it works," Johnson said. "I wouldn't go out and do it if it didn't work."

AMP Section Name:Corpwatch in the News

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