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Endangered turtles' arrival sets deadline for oil cleanup

By Sara Sneath
April 7, 2014 at 8:02 p.m.
Updated April 7, 2014 at 11:08 p.m.

Contracted crews work to clean up four miles of beach on Matagorda Island that was the most impacted area by the Galveston Oil Spill. Three hundred and six people are working daily to clean up the oil by removing the contaminated top layer of sand. Crews have cleaned up a total of 304,000 pounds of oil, sand, and debris from Matagorda Island and Mustang Island.

THE IMPACT

As of Sunday, 112 oiled dead animals have been found on Matagorda and Mustang islands, including 19 sea turtles and 11 dolphins. Necropsies will determine if oil is to blame.

SOURCE: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service spokeswoman Nancy Brown

Dressed in transparent plastic jumpsuits and yellow booties, a cleanup crew sits in all-terrain vehicles eating lunch.

It's late Monday afternoon on Matagorda Island, and the ongoing effort has halted for food and a truck to carry away clumps of oil the crew dug out from under a layer of sand.

The oil cleanup along Matagorda Island shoreline continues but is slowed by logistical challenges. Yet the workers are determined to beat the arrival of nesting endangered turtles, which are expected on the island this month.

"We're very hopeful that we'll be able to beat the turtles," said U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service spokesman Tom Buckley.

The oil on Matagorda Island - which has mixed with sand, forming what looks and smells like chunks of asphalt - came from a 168,000-gallon spill in Galveston Bay. While oil washed up on 24 miles of the 38-mile island, the heaviest bit is concentrated on a 4-mile stretch of the southern tip near Cedar Bayou.

Within that stretch, the crew uses rakes and shovels to scrape sand off layers of oil as thick as 11/2 inches, shoveling the oil into piles to be bagged, driven to the island's dock and barged to a facility in Corpus Christi. More than 100,000 pounds of oiled debris has been removed from the shoreline.

On Monday, the crew made several piles of oily sand to be bagged, but the trucks to load the bags were still making the 11/2-hour commute to the location.

The affected area of Matagorda Island's shoreline is the most difficult logistical challenge David Morris has witnessed at a U.S. oil cleanup site.

"This isn't an amenity beach. This is a habitat," said Morris, an emergency response consultant specializing in oil spills.

In addition to the long commute, workers have to put on jumpers and booties to enter the cleanup site. Before they can leave, the tires of their ATVs are brushed off and their booties are cut off. More than 300 responders work on Matagorda each day of the cleanup.

Though the shoreline is too remote for recreation, it's a nesting site to birds and endangered turtles.

Kemp's Ridley turtles are due to the island in two or three weeks, Buckley said.

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