PORTLAND — A fuel spill at the Portland International Jetport turned deadly last weekend when two oil-slicked birds died after being cleaned and treated.
It was the state’s first oil-related wildlife fatality in a decade. State and federal officials are looking into possible fines.
A Jetport official, meanwhile, said the spill occurred when a heating fuel pump had been shut down for service a day before the spill. Only the supply pump – and not an automatic shut-off – was re-activated by a Jetport employee.
Authorities were called to the Jetport around noon on Nov. 10 when 600 gallons of No. 2 heating oil were discovered in a storm water retention pond. Rain pushed much of the oil out of the pond and into the Fore River.
Samantha DePoy-Warren, spokeswoman for the Maine Department of Environmental Protection, said it would be impossible to say exactly how much of the oil made it into the river.
“We believe it was a significant portion,” she said Monday.
DePoy-Warren said crews from the DEP, Clean Harbors, Portland Fire Department, U.S. Coast Guard and Jetport responded to the spill.
They used a containment boom to keep the oil in a small cove that had a natural eddy, preventing it from moving into Long Creek, an urban-impaired stream that Portland, South Portland and Westbrook are working to clean up.
Two rounds of absorbent booms and other absorbent pads were used to remove the oil for three days. Particular attention was paid to areas near the discharge site that had emulsified, or “gunked up,” DePoy-Warren said.
Oil left in the detention pond was removed by a vacuum truck.
“I’m hopeful there will be no long-term impact because the cleanup was so successful,” DePoy-Warren said.
But the spill killed two birds, common snipes, that were found in the detention pond last Friday morning.
The birds were transported to the Center for Wildlife in York to be cleaned and treated.
Lorisa Ricketts, the center’s intensive care director, said it appeared as though the birds had been slicked for 24 hours. The oil mats their feathers, making it difficult for them to stay warm and repel water, she said.
Once cleaned, the birds were kept in a warm, well-ventilated area during transport. Workers cleaned them with warm water and detergent, and placed them in warm cages with food.
“It’s important to (clean them) as quickly as you can once the animals are stable,” Ricketts said, “because the fumes can actually do damage to them and the oil itself can actually burn their skin.”
Ricketts said one bird in particular did not look well.
“One bird was very quiet,” she said, noting the snipes are small, active birds. “Quiet in wildlife is never a good sign.”
When staff came on Saturday morning, she said, both birds were dead.
Dana DeGraaf, the oil spill biologist for the state Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife, said the state is working with federal counterparts to determine whether to fine the Jetport in accordance with the Migratory Bird Treaty Act.
Such fines may be levied if the spill is the result of negligence, he said.
“There could be possible fines as a result of bird fatalities,” DeGraaf said.
Jetport Director Paul Bradbury said Monday that the oil pumping system in the new terminal was shutdown for maintenance on Nov. 9 by a contractor. The next day, a Jetport employee turned on the supply pump, but did not activate the automated shut-off system, he said.
Bradbury said the pump probably ran for a couple of hours, over-flowing a 200 gallon tank in the mechanical room. The extra oil backed up into vents leading to the roof, where the oil spilled, and was carried by the rain into the airport’s storm-water system.
“Those roof drains are just considered to be rain water,” he said. “So that’s tied right to the storm-water system, not the sanitary sewer.”
Bradbury said the Jetport is in the process of tying together the supply pump and automatic turn-off to prevent future mistakes.
“Certainly we will make it so it never happens again by putting in a set of redundant contacts,” he said.
DePoy-Warren said the DEP responds to about 3,000 oil spills a year, ranging from a gallon to thousands of gallons.
She said the last fatalities from an oil spill occurred in 2001, when 5,600 gallons of fuel spilled into Sanborn Pond in Brooks. The spill killed two loons, a cormorant, four muskrats and a snapping turtle.
Other than the two birds, DePoy-Warren said the clean-up effort in Portland was successful and Jetport officials have been cooperative. She said a combination of well-coordinated response and a little luck averted a bigger crisis.
She did not know how much the cleanup has cost.