(Associated Press) Dozens of federally protected brown pelicans have feathers coated in oil from an estimated 5,000-gallon spill in the Savannah River, Georgia environmental officials said Tuesday. The pelicans, no longer listed as an endangered species in Georgia but still protected as migratory birds, were seen perched along the river’s banks during a wildlife assessment on the 12-miles of waterway where the oil spread Monday from Savannah to Tybee Island.
“Right now it’s too early to tell how many, if any, of the brown pelicans will die,” said Jeff Barnes, an emergency specialist with the state Environmental Protection Division. “They are cleaning themselves off, but the problem is they get (oil) on their beaks, they swallow it.”
Brown pelicans are endangered in the U.S. except for those found along the Atlantic coast as well as in Florida and Alabama _ areas where the birds have been considered recovered since 1985.
Barnes said his team had surveyed 47 brown pelicans smeared with oil along the river, which forms the Georgia-South Carolina state line. They made up 19 percent of 246 of the birds spotted Tuesday.
None of the birds seemed seriously ill or dying, Barnes said. No dead birds or fish have been found in the spill area.
He said wildlife officials won’t try to capture and clean the large pelicans unless they appear near death, for risk of injuring the birds’ fragile wings and necks.
The Coast Guard said it still had not determined what caused the oil spill, but hoped laboratory tests would determine the type of oil and help identify if it came from a ship, pipeline or other source.
Cmdr. David Murk, the Coast Guard officer in charge of the investigation and cleanup, told reporters most of the oil had settled in sea grasses along the river’s southern bank.
About three miles of the adjacent Intracoastal Waterway remained closed to boats Tuesday with pools of oil contained by floating booms to stop them from spreading.
“We don’t have the product actually on the water so much, which makes it more difficult to recover when you get into the sea grass,” said Murk, who estimated the cleanup could take “weeks, possibly months.”
A 6-inch-wide band of oil was found along 600 yards of beach on the northern tip of Tybee Island, a popular summer vacation spot. Murk said the beaches remained open after officials determined there was little health risk.
Because the source of the spill remains unidentified, the federal government has brought in a contractor to clean up the spill at taxpayer expense. Richard Grant, of contractor Moran Environmental Recovery, said cleanup efforts were under way with about 40 people working on the spill.
Cargo ships resumed traveling the river to the Port of Savannah late Monday after the Coast Guard had closed the 12-mile stretch, effectively shutting down the port, for nearly 13 hours.