A Timely Drill for an Untimely Spill

Last week, on September 14th at 08:34am, OWCN was alerted to a semi-truck tanker that had overturned on highway 70. Its tank was punctured, causing the release of approximately 2,000 gallons of diesel fuel and 1,000 gallons of gasoline. The spill was not yet stopped or contained, and the fuel was said to be making its way towards the Feather River.

Luckily, we had just the drill under our belts for such a spill! Our full deployment drill in March 2017 took place in Quincy, CA along the Feather River, only a few miles away from the spill. This was our first inland wildlife response drill to take place since the expansion of the OWCN’s mandate to cover all California surface waters back in 2015. Sixteen member organizations participated, working through the unique challenges posed by inland spills, such as the wide variety of potential species affected, which might include anything from amphibians and reptiles, to raptors or songbirds, or rodents, mustelids, and other mammals. The drill provided an excellent learning tool for the operational and technical issues involved, and since then we have been working hard on getting species-specific care protocols together as well.

With amphibian and reptile protocols already completed, we are now well underway with the next group, the semi-aquatic mammals: beavers, river otters, and muskrats. These species spend a significant proportion of their lives in river environments and are thus at high risk during a river spill. As I formulate the care protocols for these species, I have not only had the pleasure of connecting and consulting with several experts in the field, but I have also learned quite the slew of interesting facts!

For example, did you know that a beaver’s front teeth are actually located OUTSIDE of their mouths? So that they can chew and swim at the same time without getting water in their mouths? Or that they can recognize a sibling born years apart from themselves that they have never even met before (note: the fancy term for this is “kin recognition by phenotype matching”)? And finally, did you know that beavers secrete a substance called castoreum from their castor sacs that has been used in vanilla, strawberry, and raspberry artificial flavorings? Although exceedingly rare in foods these days, castoreum does still have a significant market for use in the perfume industry. I’m not sure that this last fact will be especially helpful in terms of caring for beavers during a spill, but it has been quite rewarding learning about how fascinating these animals are!

As for the Feather River spill, fortunately, within only a few hours of the notification, it had been contained, with no wildlife affected. As we continue with protocol formulation and plan our next full deployment drill, we know that we will be well prepared when the time does come for another inland response.





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