Tulsa Tribune

From the air, the small lakes and lagoons that dot the oil fields of Texas, Oklahoma and New Mexico look inviting to migrant birds. But many of the water holes are fouled with oil that sticks to the feathers of ducks, herons, cranes and geese and slowly suffocates them.

Authorities estimate more than 100,000 ducks and a half-million other migratory birds perish every year in the oil fields of the three-state area because of the waste pits. Even though many of the pits in Oklahoma operate with legal permits from the Corporation Commission, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is preparing to prosecute companies to get the pits closed or covered.

Wildlife service special agents are preparing 15 cases against oil companies in Oklahoma and 11 cases in Texas under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act – which allows fines up to $10,000 for each water bird killed by the oil-fouled pits. Since Oct. 1, fish-and-game agents in Tulsa, Lubbock and Oklahoma City have been gathering dead carcasses, doing necropsies on the dead birds and gathering evidence for prosecution. Senior resident agent Tom McKay, in Oklahoma City, explains, “Since Oct 1 we have collected 44 bird carcasses and those birds represent 15 different Oklahoma oil companies or commercial pit operators,” he said. “And these cases are in the process of being submitted to the U.S. attorney’s office in Oklahoma City for criminal prosecution.”

For 13 years, Midge Erskine has worked from her Midland, Tex., home to save birds from the oil pits. She recalls one particularly grisly experience near the Pecos River. “We saw great blue herons that had landed in the pits and were cooked overnight. They just dissolved because the oil was so hot.

“We find everything from eagles on down in these pits,” explained Erskine, who has been rehabilitating injured birds for two decades. She figures about 400 birds get treatment
in her home every year – including one bald eagle that became trapped in an oil pit several years ago.

“Very few birds escape death once they touch the oil,” explains Rob Lee, a Wildlife Service special agent stationed in Lubbock. “Sometimes, the bird can escape from the pits but they are going to die because they have no way of cleaning their feathers. Anything more than a minute amount of oil is fatal.”

According to Lee, ducks are most prone to fly into the oil pits. “I’ve never sat down to figure out how many species of ducks I’ve found. One of them might be a teal, but I don’t know what kind. It’s just a mass of oily, putrid flesh,” Lee said, adding that he finds more ducks than any other species, but once counted 30 dead Great Blue herons at a single pit in one day.

State officials refused to speculate on the number of open pits around the state. Estimates range in the thousands. The crux of the problem, said Lee and McKay, lies with state agencies such as the Oklahoma Corporation Commission and the Texas Railroad Commission. The Wildlife Service wants the states to enforce their laws more stringently or pass new laws requiring open tanks to be covered by netting or screen.

“We mean what we say,” says Lee. Texas law prohibits storage of oil or oil byproducts in open pits, and has since 1939. Yet Lee has found oil pits that have been open for more
than 10 years. “We can’t afford to be doing the state agency’s business,” he said. “We can’t do their inspections for them. There was no voluntary rule change by either Texas or Oklahoma, so we are enforcing federal law.”

Both agents have witnessed numerous violations of Oklahoma Corporation Commission rules. Both have seen waste pits where oil covered the entire surface – commission rules
allow only 10 percent of the surface to be covered with oil.

Corporation Commission rules require all noncommercial pits, excluding those used for saltwater disposal, to be licensed or permitted by the agency, and all must be closed one month to a year after drilling has been suspended or the site has been closed.

Reserve pits, associated with oil drilling, must be closed within a year after drilling, or use of the pits stops. Pit licensing is based upon the amount of chlorides or salt
in impounded drilling materials, the level and activity of water in the area and other factors.

The petroleum industry isn’t the only culprit. Chemical companies, gold companies, and natural gas refiners also use pits that can be toxic to birds. Preventing birds from landing on the oil-fouled pits and ponds can be done with screens or nets. The nets are expensive, but many companies either will have to install them or close the pits, Lee said. One company in Arizona spent $3 million to screen a large pond, he said.

Similar installations are necessary for open-top storage tanks as well, Lee said. He explained that both pits and open-top storage tanks attract birds and will have to be

“People say the open tanks don’t kill birds – that’s because they don’t look for them. I do, and I find them. Mostly, they kill smaller birds that are attracted because they think it’s water. They also are attracted because the oil in the tank attracts insects. The insects lie there and struggle, birds see them, go down for an easy meal and then get trapped,” Lee said.

Already, oil companies have begun taking action. McKay and Lee lauded the efforts of the Phillips Petroleum Co. in particular for the screening of several large ponds near
company refineries.

Kerr-McGee, Texaco and ARCO also have been closing ponds. Estimating the real number of birds killed every year by the oil pits is particularly difficult because once the birds land on the oil-fouled pits, they sink to the bottom. Erskine believes official estimates of the carnage are low. She believes as many as a million birds a year are being killed by the oil pits in the Central Flyway – the corridor in the center of the United States that migratory birds follow. The Midland activist estimates that the uncovered pits in Texas alone may be killing 12 percent of North America’s duck population every year.

The open-pit issue has become increasingly important in light of drastically declining duck populations. The mallard population has declined from a historic average of 8.1 million
to about 6.1 million. The pintail duck population has dropped from 5.4 million to 2.4 million.

Some of the decline in waterfowl population has been blamed on the drought affecting most of the Central Flyway, but Erskine says drought exacerbates the oil-pit problem. “The
birds see the oily ponds and they land on them,” she explained. “But during a drought, the number of dead birds goes way up, because that’s the only water available.”

Today, the Wildlife Service held a hearing on open oil pits at the Corporation Commission office in Oklahoma City. An additional hearing is scheduled for Dec. 13 at the same time and location.

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