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Government biologists say substance at Aransas refuge is not oil


July 7, 2010 at 2:07 a.m.

What appears to be oil in this photograph is actually natural, broken-down organic material, according to U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologists. Bessy Thompson, a Victoria resident, took this photograph at the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge after hearing from friends that oil was washing ashore.

News of tar balls reaching Texas shores has area residents concerned their bays and beaches may be the next layer pervaded by the worst oil spill in U.S. history.

Bessy Thompson, a Victoria resident, visited the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge Monday after friends told her that oil was washing up at the complex. She photographed a 2-by-1-foot patch of what she believed was oil and alerted the Advocate to it.

"I'm pretty certain that it was oil, but, like I said, I don't know much about it," Thompson said.

But what appears to be oil in Thompson's photograph is actually natural, broken-down organic material, according to U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologists, who based their conclusions on the image.

Michael Baccigalopi, area manager of the Texas General Land Office in Port Lavaca, said his agency is also investigating the sighting.

A U.S. Coast Guard spokesman said Wednesday that neither the Coast Guard sector in Corpus Christi nor the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge have received any reports of oil washing on the beach.

Thompson said hearing about oil possibly washing ashore at the refuge was disconcerting on two fronts: because it could affect public health and because it could affect wildlife and the environment.

"I'm an animal lover, but I also worry for the health of the people," Thompson said. "I have relatives that have asthma and I know any little thing can trigger an asthma attack. The concern is the environment, people and the animals."

Responders have rehabilitated birds that were covered in oil in Louisiana and released them into refuge grounds.

Thompson sighted brown pelicans while on the walkway at the refuge and worries for the birds, which have already gone through a lot of stress with the oil spill, she said.

Although the oil spill just reached Texas this week and forecasts predict that the spill will have minimal impact here, many have been concerned about its effect on wildlife, fishing industries and tourism.

In Seadrift, citizens will meet Monday in an event that will feature activist and shrimper Diane Wilson as well as Riki Ott, a marine toxicologist who studies oil pollution and who fished salmon in Alaska during the Exxon-Valdez spill.

"Obviously, now the general public are on high alert," Brown said. "Everybody's looking for it, waiting for it."

Brown expects tar balls will be the brunt of what responders here deal with.

"For Texas, it's going to be labor-intensive," she said, referring to tar ball cleanup. "That could all change with a hurricane."

A unified command of federal and state agencies, the U.S. Coast Guard, BP and other parties continues its response efforts.

Texas has a system in place and has laid boom in and around its sensitive wetlands to ensure minimal impact on wildlife, and the barrier island that surrounds much of the Texas coast should provide a layer of protection, Brown said.

"We are as prepared as we can be," Brown said.



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