A week has passed since an oil spill was reported in the town of Suðureyri in Northwest Iceland. Over the past days, residents have set up makeshift facilities to clean affected eider ducks – and have managed to save almost two dozen birds since last weekend. An expert with with the Natural Science Institute of the Westfjords believes that these efforts may only serve to protract the birds’ suffering, Fréttablaðið reports.
A quick recap
Over 9,000 litres of diesel oil spilt into Suðureyri harbour on Thursday, March 3. The leak, which originated from a reserve tank owned by the power company Orkubú Vestfjarða – and which was buried in snow – was discovered by residents the following morning.
They could smell it.
“I still smell like diesel oil, despite having showered twice since yesterday,” Auður Steinberg, a resident in Suðureyri, stated in an interview with Vísir last Sunday.
The oil found its way into a pond near the local swimming pool – which was subsequently closed alongside the elementary school – and from there into the harbour. It wasn’t until Monday, three days after the leak was reported, that hoses were submerged in water to try to prevent the leak from spreading.
Hundreds of eider ducks in bad shape
Although there was less soil pollution than initially suspected, hundreds of eider ducks were badly affected by the leak. Many of them fled the harbour, where they commonly spend their nights, onto nearby roads and neighbourhoods.
In an interview with RÚV on Wednesday, eider duck expert and Suðureyri resident Einar Mikael Sverrisson described the conditions as “nightmarish.” According to Einar, “there were hundreds of birds that needed help.”
He got to work right away.
Having converted baiting facilities into a bird-rescue centre, Einar and his neighbours had, as of yesterday, managed to save nineteen out of the twenty-eight birds that they had collected last weekend. “But over a hundred birds remain, completely helpless, most of them already dead,” Einar told Fréttablaðið in another interview yesterday.
He predicts that hundreds of birds will perish over the coming weeks and months if nothing is done.
Requested funds of six-ten million ISK
As noted in that same article published in Fréttablaðið yesterday, Suðureyri residents requested that Orkubú Vestfjarða contribute as much as ISK 10 million ($75,000 / €70,000) towards rescue operations and that the company convert a reserve power station into facilities for helping the birds.
Acting on the advice of the Westfjords Health Inspector, Elías Jónatansson – Director of Orkubú Vestfjarða – turned down the request. It wouldn’t be “realistic,” Einar told Fréttablaðið, adding that the company felt “terribly sorry” about what had happened.
“I’m not going to lie: something like this just doesn’t happen out of the blue. Something went wrong, somewhere, and we’re going to make things right. That’s for certain.”
Better to euthanise the birds
Today, a week after the leak was first reported, a veterinarian is expected to arrive in Suðureyri. Upon arrival, the veterinarian will assess whether or not the birds can be rescued – or whether the authorities will have to resort to euthanisation.
Sigurlaug Sigurðardóttir, expert with the Natural Science Institute of the Westfjords, told Fréttablaðið yesterday that there was “little to be done” in such conditions. “According to the Nature Conservation Act, it is our duty to save animals if it is possible. If it is not possible, then we are to put them to death immediately.
While expressing admiration for the work done by Suðureyri residents, Sigurlaug maintained that such efforts may only serve to protract their suffering. “They’re doing this with the best of intentions, of course, but that doesn’t mean that it’s helping.”
It is usually considered most humane to euthanise eider ducks that become soaked in oil, an article in RÚV notes. “It takes many weeks for the natural protective oils in their feathers to build up again in order to stay warm and stay afloat.”
The cleanup could take days or even weeks
The clean-up of Suðureyri harbour began on Wednesday, but the weather has made things difficult. Employees of Orkubú Vestfjarða are employing a so-called “skimmer:” a machine that sucks the oil from the water.
“We’re trying to restrict the flow of oil, to corner it, and use a skimmer to suck it up,” Sigríður Kristinsdóttir, project manager with the Environment Agency of Iceland, told RÚV yesterday.
Those working to the clean the spill have managed to stop the source of the leak, but cleaning the diesel oil from the pond and the harbour is expected to take days or even weeks.