Oil Response Training: Hoping for the Best, Preparing for the Worst

ArrayDecember 2, 2020 at 4:59 pm

Early in October, you may have noticed several Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife vehicles lining route 202 next to Annabessacook Lake while staff deployed canoes and kayaks into the water, paddling against strong winds and chilly temperatures while others assisted from shore. Some passerby’s slowed down to gawk, some even stopped to inquire what happened, concerned of what might be unfolding.

While this day and this lake (thankfully) was experiencing no issues, it has in the past. Maine relies extensively on heating oil. During the winter months, large quantities are transported through the state by ships, trucks, trains, and pipelines. The vast majority of this happens safely, but occasionally there are accidents and sometimes—especially if the spilled oil gets into the water—it can impact wildlife. If and when a spill does occur, it requires a timely and thoughtful response to save oiled wildlife. While these accidents and responses are rare, preparing for the worst is the best plan of action.

Training had started much earlier that day at the Augusta Armory, where MDIFW staff gathered to receive scientific expertise on proper oil response training from the Tri-State Bird Rescue, Don Katnik, MDIFW oil response coordinator; Ginger McMullin, DEP oil response coordinator; and Jeff Squires, oil spill contingency planner; along with Wyman Briggs, the United Stated Coast Guard’s Incident Command Center coordinator. These key partners provided vital information on appropriate roles and responsibilities during an oiled wildlife response, requirements for working with hazardous materials, field safety, chain of custody and evidence collection, as well as wildlife capture and transport guidelines. This year, on top of training to retrieve, handle, and care for oiled wildlife, staff had an additional layer to keep in mind – oil response training during an infectious disease outbreak. Like all Maine state agencies, much of MDIFW’s normal work that would require people gathering has been curtailed during the pandemic. We still, however, need to be prepared to respond to an oil spill that impacts wildlife, which could occur at any time, and be able to do that safely even now. 

Usually, any MDIFW staff interested in joining the annual oil response training are welcome to attend, even if for personal edification. This year, the number of participants was kept low to enable proper social distancing. Staff formed small teams that they worked with all day, and safety officers were assigned the task of monitoring the proper use of Personal Protective Equipment, including face masks. While these additional challenges may have required some unique modifications to the training, MDIFW staff went above and beyond.

Phillip deMaynadier, MDIFW reptile, amphibian, and invertebrate group leader; Derek Yorks, MDIFW reptile specialist, and Derek Moore, MDIFW contractor, had set turtle traps in days leading up to the training. Turtle traps are similar to lobster traps, allowing an animal to safely enter, but providing no exit. These traps are set strategically in areas where a turtle would be safe and comfortable, allowing time in and out of the water while it waits to be released. In some previous oil spills in Maine, the majority of oiled wildlife were turtles, so demonstrating proper trap setting and animal handling was vital to proper training.

Oiled waterfowl capture is another large concern during any response. While Kelsey Sullivan, MDFIW game bird specialist, and Jason Czapiga, GIS coordinator, strategically placed duck decoys out on the lake, other MDIFW staff threw on their life jackets, grabbed a paddle and began battling against the wind to capture these simulated oiled birds. Capturing a decoy is much easier than the real thing but using a net and balancing a paddle simultaneously can take practice. MDIFW staff and other participants successfully captured all decoys (multiple times), and released live turtles, all while social distancing.

While staff came prepared to work and to learn best practices for these types of responses, this training provided a much-needed opportunity to safely enjoy the outdoors and reconnect with coworkers they haven’t seen since the shutdown. It is these partnerships within and between organizations that promote and ensure success in crises, in addition to the relationships with our local citizens and residents that we rely on for timely reporting.

To report an oil spill, contact the Maine Department of Environmental Protection at 1-800-482-0777. If you observe wildlife that you think might be oiled, please do not attempt to capture or handle it – this could be dangerous to both you and the animal. Call MDIFW’s Oiled Wildlife Hotline at 1-877-OIL-BIRD.