Staging platform, © Krista Schlyer/Defenders

Protecting Wildlife From Poison

Mary Beth Beetham, Director of Legislative Affairs

USFWS Contaminants Specialist Diesel Spill

Specialists from the Environmental Contaminants Program respond to an overturned train, taking quick action to prevent diesel from running into a nearby creek. (Credit: USFWS)

In our modern world, there are a myriad of harmful pollutants, many potentially lethal, that adversely affect fish, wildlife, habitat and people. These include pesticides, endocrine disruptors, heavy metals, prescription drugs, oil and other industrial chemicals, fertilizers and numerous other products that are released into the environment through spills, disposal, ongoing use or other means. In recent studies of major rivers and streams, one or more pesticides have been found more than 90 percent of the time, and in more than 80 percent of the fish sampled. This may also be causing declines in pollinators such as bees and birds, as well as declines and deformities in frogs and other amphibians.

The Fish and Wildlife Service, through its Environmental Contaminants Program, is the primary federal agency responsible for protecting fish, wildlife and habitat from damaging pollutants. It identifies and assesses their effects, works to prevent exposure, and leads restoration of the resources that these poisons damage. If the federal budget goes off the so-called “fiscal cliff” at the end of the month and triggers significant funding cuts, or an overall budget agreement produces similar impacts, vulnerable wildlife will face an even greater threat from dangerous substances.

Disaster Investigation and Recovery
One of the most important responsibilities of the program is its leadership in Natural Resource Damage Assessment and Restoration to recover fish, wildlife and habitat injured from oil spills or the release of other hazardous substances. When these incidents occur, the Contaminants Program investigates the damage and, if it’s not already known, determines who is responsible and negotiates with them for restitution. Then, using that money, the program works with other stakeholders on restoration projects like these:

  • In 2006, they reached a settlement of more than $2 million with DuPont to restore wetland and river habitat in Delaware that had been damaged by releases of lead, cadmium and zinc from 1902 to 1984 during production of pigment.
  • In 2009, they reached a settlement of more than $12 million with parties responsible for damage from the Palmerton Zinc Pile Superfund Site in Pennsylvania, where zinc smelting had been releasing metals like arsenic, chromium, lead, manganese, copper cadmium and zinc for most of the 20th century.
  • The program is currently working to determine what restoration efforts it will take to mitigate damages to natural resources from PCBs that were discharged from manufacturing plants in and around the Hudson River. Studies are underway to assess how the substances may have contaminated the area’s fish, mink, sediment, waterfowl and other birds.
BP Oil Spill wildlife response

The USFWS responds to the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, bringing oiled birds like this pelican to stabilization facilities where they can be cleaned, rehabilitated, and released (Credit: Coast Guard Petty Officer 2nd Class John D Miller)

Since 1992, the program has negotiated more than $785 million in settlements from responsible parties to restore natural resources that are held in trust for the American people. That number predates the damage from the devastating 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil disaster in the Gulf of Mexico, for which damages are still being assessed.

The Deepwater Horizon spill is now widely recognized as the worst oil spill in American history, with damage to natural resources likely to total in the billions. One billion dollars in early damages has already been provided for restoration, and will fund restoration projects like protecting and restoring habitat for beach-nesting birds in the Florida Panhandle, Alabama and Mississippi by marking and preventing disturbance of key sites, increasing predator control to reduce loss of chicks, eggs and nesting adults, and increasing surveillance and monitoring of nesting sites. It will also help with projects to restore nesting habitat for loggerhead sea turtles in Florida and Alabama by reducing artificial lighting through eliminating, retrofitting or replacing existing light fixtures.

Being Ready to Respond

Oiled beach

Oil washes ashore in Bon Secour National Wildlife Refuge in Alabama (Credit: Jereme Phillips, USFWS)

The Contaminants Program also makes sure that teams are ready and able to respond to spills and chemical releases. This includes pre-incident planning and training, incident response, and post-incident assessment and restoration. However, chronic underfunding of regular operations has made it more difficult for the program to maintain enough expert contaminant biologists, given that contaminant biology is a highly specialized field. Moreover, when a major incident occurs and significant staff resources from the Contaminants Program are used to address it, ongoing restoration efforts from prior incidents often suffer as a result. Stretching insufficient resources is a challenge already faced by many programs that affect wildlife and habitats, but we should be especially concerned when the program that reacts to oil spills, chemical leaks and other contaminations does not have the resources to do its job.

The program already lacks the funding for its current needs, and any additional cuts will further undermine the work needed to prevent harm to vulnerable wildlife from dangerous pollutants. For example:

  • There are currently no criteria to describe what levels of many contaminants are safe or unsafe for wildlife, and this program is working to develop them.
  • New studies have shown that fish and wildlife populations are more seriously affected by mercury than previously known, especially birds such as the American kestrel, American white ibis, snowy egret and tri-colored heron, and other animals that consume fish and insects contaminated by mercury. The program needs to investigate to determine the extent of these impacts.
  • The number of oil spill inland and in or near rivers is expected to increase in coming years due to the aging of the U.S. oil pipeline infrastructure, much of which is already more than 50 years old. As a result, there will be a growing number of damaging spills like the one in the Kalamazoo River in Michigan in 2010 that spilled over 800,000 gallons of oil and devastated wildlife across the region, including wood ducks, swans, great blue herons, mink, turtles, snakes, frogs and toads. Another spill in the Yellowstone River in Montana spilled about 50,000 gallons of oil and harmed wetlands and wildlife including the endangered pallid sturgeon, waterfowl and wading birds. It is absolutely crucial that the Contaminants Program be able to reach out to land management agencies and train them in the proper procedures in the event of a spill on their lands to ensure that the Contaminants Program will be called immediately both to protect wildlife in spill areas from harm, and to ensure that damages to the public’s wildlife and habitats are properly quantified for restitution before the evidence dissipates or washes away.

The Contaminants Program’s funding level has basically stayed the same since 2001, yet its workload has only grown and its small team of expert contaminant biologists is far overstretched. Please click here tell your members of Congress that you support a balanced approach to address the budget deficit — one that does not include further cuts to programs that protect wildlife from dangerous pollutants.

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