GALVESTON — Volunteers will be walking a 26-mile stretch of Galveston beach looking for tar balls, oil on the sand and oiled wildlife for the next four days.
About 400 of the nearly 1,000 people who have signed up to help with the oil spill response are being called in to participate in the “Sentinel” program.
“Volunteers are being activated (today) and we’ll be out on the island walking the beach and looking for oil and oiled wildlife,” said Bob Stokes, president of the Galveston Bay Foundation.
The foundation is in charge of managing the volunteer operation in response to the oil spill that occurred Saturday after a barge and cargo ship collided. The barge leaked up to 168,000 gallons of heavy fuel oil into Galveston Bay.
Until now, only volunteers affiliated with groups such as the Galveston County Community Emergency Response Team and the U.S. Coast Guard Auxiliary have been put to work helping professional responders deal with the spill.
The foundation will contact volunteers and by today they may be getting out on the beaches, Stokes said.
Walking the beach
The foundation, working with the Central Texas Coastal Area Committee, is reaching out to volunteers. Based on volunteer applications, the most-qualified volunteers available were contacted by email to confirm their acceptance of a volunteer assignment, according to officials.
Volunteers need to meet certain qualifications, such as being 18 years old or older, in good physical condition and being able to work outdoors in potentially harsh conditions, said Emily Ford, volunteer coordinator with the Galveston Bay Foundation.
Volunteers will be divided into teams that will include a certified team leader and sent out to walk a 3-mile stretch of beach, she said.
Coast Guard instructors will train volunteers to identify different types of oil and wildlife using tools developed by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Emergency Response Division, according to officials.
Information gathered by the volunteers will be brought back to the Unified Command Post, said Nicolle Rutherford of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Shoreline Cleanup Assessment Technique program.
That information will be evaluated. If action is needed, a trained Shoreline Cleanup and Assessment Technique team will be sent out, Rutherford said.
Teams from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department are responding to calls of oiled wildlife, said Clare Lee, a wildlife branch director with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Oiled birds are being taken to rehabilitation centers for treatment, she said.
Since Saturday, 67 oiled birds have been recovered, with 25 still in rehabilitation and 42 that were either dead when collected or died in rehabilitation, Lee said.
Surveying sensitive areas
In a separate effort, the Galveston Island Park Board of Trustees is mobilizing its own set of volunteers. The board was looking to organize about 40 volunteers with specific skills, said Kelly de Schaun, executive director with the board.
De Schaun said they were looking for area residents with an intimate knowledge of the local environment, those with kayaking experience, knowledge in moving around in protected areas and with GPS and mapmaking skills, among other traits. She said she expected to assemble a team of master naturalists, marine biologists, habitat specialists, ethnologists and others with resource management experience.
Teams will go out Saturday to document oil pollution around sensitive areas such as Big Reef and the East End Lagoon, and help guide response teams, de Schaun said.
“While the remediation efforts have focused on the shoreline, we feel like it has been breached because of the high tides that came in (Wednesday),” de Schaun said. “We concerned about pollution that’s gotten up into those habitat areas.”
She said the volunteers planned to document the pollution and pass along the information to the response teams.
Eyes in the field
But while interest in volunteering has been high, the Galveston Bay Foundation and the U.S. Coast Guard have had to stop adding people to list of potential volunteers.
“At this time, due to our already high load of volunteers in the database, we are not recruiting additional volunteers,” Ford said. “That may change in the near future.”
Michael Kappas, Volunteer Team Leader with the U.S. Coast Guard Auxiliary, cautioned area residents from trying to take matters into their own hands.
“We do understand that volunteers would like to clean up oiled beaches and oiled birds. However, under federal law, volunteers cannot be used for such hazardous work,” Kappas said.
Without equipment and training that professionals have, volunteers could put themselves in danger and harm the environment and wildlife if they were to try and clean up the oil directly, Kappas said.
But volunteers and area residents can be the eyes of the cleanup operation, said Jane Sarosdy, deputy environmental unit leader with the Texas General Land Office.
She urged anyone who sees oiled wildlife to call and report the sighting.
“These oiled birds can fly up anytime,” she said.
How to help
While officials are no longer taking volunteers, people in the area can still help report any oiled wildlife sightings to 888-384-2000 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Contact reporter Christopher Smith Gonzalez at 409-683-5314 or email@example.com.