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Galveston Oil Spill Threatens Wildlife During Migration Season [Photos]

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The barge that collided with another vessel in Galveston Bay Saturday was carrying 900,000 gallons of thick oil that began spilling into the waters which are home to a large population of birds.

According to reports, about one-fifth of the oil had been spilled on the waters of Galveston Bay leaving a greasy layer on top of the waterway of one of the busiest shipping routes in the area.

Coast Guard officials working on he clean-up said that about 168,000 gallons of the oil being carried by the barge, which was seen partially submerged, spilled into Galveston Bay, adding that oil had been detected up to 12 miles offshore in the Gulf of Mexico as of Sunday afternoon, ABC News reported.

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Captain Brian Penoyer, commander of the Coast Guard at Houston-Galveston, leading the efforts said that the oil spill in the Bay is “significant.”

Penoyer said on Sunday crews were in the midst of an important step called ligthering, the process of transferring the remaining contents to other vessels in an effort to prevent further oil from spilling into Galveston Bay.

Some disturbing photos of the area in question were already being shared on Twitter showing birds covered in thick, black oil, reminiscent of other disasters such as the Exxon Valdez in Alaska.

The Galveston Bay — which is a key route in moving petrochemicals — was shut down for a second day on Sunday and affected at least 60 vessels, which were either trying to leave or get in.

Penoyer said that over 380 people were working on cleaning the oil spill in Galveston Bay and more were being summoned, including oil skimming vessels that will deploy about 60,000 feet of containment booms to protect sensitive habitats.

Even thought the sightings of affected wildlife are scattered, Jim Guidry, executive vice president of Houston-based Kirby Inland Marine Corp., the owner of the barge, said the substance covering some birds is “consistent with the material” spilled into Galveston Bay adding, “We’re very concerned. We’re focused on cleaning up.”

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According to Governor Rick Perry’s office, the barge had been removed from Galveston Bay and was taken to a shipyard. There was no risk of further oil spilling into the water, however, winds were moving the currents and expanding the spill area.

Richard Gibbons, the conservation director of the Houston Audubon Society, said the Bolivar Flats Shorebird Sanctuary is two miles east of the oil spill site and attracts 50,000 to 70,000 shorebirds to shallow mud flats.

“The timing really couldn’t be much worse since we’re approaching the peak shorebird migration season,” Gibbons said. He added that tens of thousands of wintering birds remain in the area.

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“We’re at the peak of the birding season. In a couple weeks, there’s a birding festival,” said Anna Armitage, a professor at Texas A&M University’s Galveston, an expert on marshes and marine habitats. “This is one of the worst times for birds to be potentially exposed.”

Shorebirds are not the only concern as many depend on fishing for their livelihood: “I think cleanup is going to be a lot more than they expected. It’s really going to affect the economy for people who depend on fishing and shrimping,” a Galveston Bay resident said of the oil spill. The Coast Guard and National Transportation Safety Board are investigating.

[Images via Bing and ABC/Twitter]

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