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O.C. Coastal Ecosystem Has No Room for Error : Environment: Any appreciable oil spill poses a serious threat to the fragile and dwindling wildlife resources here, the experts say.

February 19, 1990|STEVEN R. CHURM and RICK VANDERKNYFF | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

HUNTINGTON BEACH — Almost every morning since the tanker American Trader poured 394,000 gallons of crude petroleum into the sea, Kennon Cory has gone to the Bolsa Chica wetlands to sit among the thickets of pickle weed and look for oil-soaked birds.

Since he was a child, Cory has been drawn to the quiet of this marshy expanse where scores of rare and migratory waterfowl have found sanctuary in an urban landscape. Protected pockets of nature like Bolsa Chica and Upper Newport Bay shaped Cory's interests--and future.

Now a graduate student studying ornithology, Cory hurried back to Bolsa Chica after the Feb. 7 spill to patrol with binoculars the mud flats and tiny nesting islands for incoming grebes, Forster's terns and willets coated with blackish goo from the offshore slick.

"It is very sad that these areas, already under such stress, face this kind of threat," said the Cal State Long Beach student.

Luckily, the wetlands at Bolsa Chica--like those near Seal Beach, the Santa Ana River mouth and Upper Newport Bay--have not been seriously damaged by the Alaskan crude that blackened miles of shoreline. The timing of the spill, Mother Nature and cleanup efforts have combined to minimize the damage inflicted on the wetlands, tide pools and marine life.

But any appreciable oil is a serious threat to Orange County's fragile and dwindling wildlife resources. And many naturalists, biologists, bird watchers and fishermen bristle at suggestions that the environmental threat in Orange County has been exaggerated, that it pales by comparison to the 11.2-million-gallon Alaskan oil spill of a year ago.

Wildlife refuges in the county are measured in acres, not miles. And various bird species and marine mammals that live here number in the hundreds, not thousands.

What natural and protected areas do exist on the county's coast are critical, experts say, because much of the shoreline has been developed or dedicated to high-intensity recreation.

"It makes me so mad when they compare this to Alaska," said Marielle Leeds, an environmental activist from Laguna Beach. "A few hundred birds here is like thousands of birds up there because that's all we've got. . . . We're getting attacked from all sides--sewage, oil, malathion spraying and development."

It is too early to assess the long-term consequences of the spill, biologists say. And perhaps, when all is said and done, the spill may prove to be only a short-term setback for the birds and marine mammals that frequent local estuaries and coastal waters. But some observers contend that the noxious oil came close to destroying what precious little contact Orange County has with a rich natural world of organisms and wildlife that inhabit local wetlands, tide pools and kelp beds.

Years to Dissipate

Jacqueline Michel, a science adviser to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, said it takes one to three years for the effects of an oil spill to disappear.

As a result, humans as well as birds and marine animals will have to contend with oil on the shoreline.

For example, oil that washed ashore has seeped as deep as three feet into the sand in some areas, according to cleanup officials. As the hot sun heats the sand, the oil will percolate to the surface as tiny pools of fresh tar, meaning thousands of beach-goers who flock each summer to Newport Beach and Huntington Beach may have to watch their step on the sand.

"As soon as people start lying on the beach, they're going to find out, because their skin will burn," said businessman Jerry Rusher, who specializes in oil cleanup products.

Swimmers and surfers may have to contend with swirling pools of foamy oil sheen for weeks, although much of the brownish muck should be gone by summer. City officials in Newport are worried about beach erosion because so much of the oil-soaked sand is being hauled away.

Environmentalists are also concerned about what lives under the sand now laced with North Slope crude.

"There is a whole world of organisms that live in the intertidal zone that are going to be affected as oil washes up on the beach," said Dorothy Green of Heal the Bay, a Santa Monica-based environmental group. "Just think of where the shore birds usually are, following the waves in and out and poking at the beach. Those birds are feeding on those organisms."

The primary concern, however, remains the wetlands.

"Ninety percent of the wetlands that were here (historically) are gone, and they're gone forever," said Pat Baird, an ornithologist at Cal State Long Beach. "If you keep chipping away at habitats, with pollutions, with oil spills . . . there's just so much these birds can take."

Said Gordon Smith, chairman of the Huntington Beach Wetlands Conservancy: "Biologists consider the wetlands to be the most productive ecosystems on earth. . . . Coastal property is so valuable, conservationists are fighting to preserve every square foot. Any damage is critical."

Breeding Concerns

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