How has the Oceana jet fuel spill affected the wetlands and wildlife?

VIRGINIA BEACH, Va. (WAVY) — Two weeks after 94,000 gallons of jet fuel spilled at Naval Air Station Oceana, cleanup work continues. But if you look out over the marsh on Wolfsnare Creek, you can see the grass of the wetlands has turned from its green color.

10 On Your Side talked to marine experts at the Virginia Institute of Marine Sciences about the damage done and how long it could be to recover. Dr. Carl Hershner has studied marine life that clings to the grass for decades.

“The low marsh is the salt marsh cordgrass, ‘Spartina Alterniflora’ is the technical term,” Dr. Hershner said pointing out grass that was similar to the same marshland from Wolfsnare Creek in Virginia Beach. “So when oil floats in here, it coats the plants, but then as the tide drops, it tends to soak down into the peat.”

To see the impact, Dr. Hershner points out the color of the grass. In Gloucester Point, it is green.

“The plants [near the fuel spill] are turning yellow now. The real question is the roots and rhizomes. The below ground has been impacted,” he said.

While the jet fuel slowly comes out, it’s the fuel absorbed in the marsh that could cause a bigger problem.

“The problem is, if that kills below ground parts of the plant, then the impacts for the system will persist for years,” he said.

In the water at Gloucester Point, you can see what the grass and wetlands should look like. 10 On Your Side asked Dr. Hershner how long until Virginia Beach looks like that again?

“If they regrow quickly, recovery is a one to two years’ time period,” he said. “If nothing starts coming back and the plants really are killed, we could be looking at five to 10 years before things start to re-establish themselves.”

On Wednesday, the Navy said wildlife experts released three animals affected by the fuel spill. The animals were cleaned, rehabilitated and deemed healthy by Tri-State Bird Rescue and Research, Inc. before they were released back into their local habitat, away from areas affected by the spill.

“It is an exciting moment to be able to release a wild animal back into their natural habitat after having been through the contamination and decontamination processes,” said Michael Wright, Navy natural resource specialist. “We have already released a red-jointed fiddler crab, a snapping turtle and an amphiuma. Today we will release another snapping turtle, an eastern box turtle, and a rough green snake. We hope to release additional animals next week.”

Tri-State Bird Rescue and Research has been responding to wildlife involved in oil spills since 1976. The organization has a trained staff on call 24-hours-a-day to respond to wildlife contaminated by oil spills anywhere in the world.

“Rehabilitation of oiled wildlife is a complex, crisis-oriented endeavor,” said Danene Birtell, oil programs director of the Oiled Wildlife Response Program at Tri-State.

According to Birtell, the rehabilitation process includes rescuing and stabilizing the animal in the field and then transporting the animal to a facility in Delaware. A veterinarian provides a medical examination, and based on the findings, determines a course of treatment.

While a number of animals have been recovered from affected areas, an effort being lead with the assistance of the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), each animal is evaluated and only released when deemed fully rehabilitated by a knowledgeable veterinarian.

“There are pre-established criteria for releasing animals into the wild,” said Birtell. “These are based on species, behavior, and medical treatment. Some things to consider are historical facts of captivity, behavior of the animal, if the animal is eating on their own, if the animal is still taking medicine, or still recovering from injury.”

After an animal is deemed ready for release, specialists work to find a release location that meets the needs of the animal.

“Release is based on whether the location is a safe environment and part of their home range,” said Birtell. “Upon release, we generally allow them to exit the carrier on their own and let them get their bearing.”

For updated info about the rehabilitated wildlife, call 757-433-2162..