Within each of the animal-rescue stations set up along the Gulf Coast is a makeshift morgue for oiled and ill creatures that didn't make it. And behind the scenes, pathologists and laboratory staff are carefully cataloging each dead creature as part of larger criminal, civil and scientific inquiries into how the Gulf of Mexico oil spill has affected animals and their habitats.
Hundreds of birds including pelicans, seagulls, terns and gannets are being gathered by wildlife teams in an effort both to save them from their veils of oil and to help them recover from the effects that it can have on their lungs and digestive systems. At the same time, government scientists and the seasoned nonprofits that the government usually hires to respond to major wildlife disasters have set up animal rescue centers along the coast.
Within those operations are morgues and temporary freezers where the dead animals are catalogued and examined. The operations cannot be photographed or observed by outsiders, because they are part of a massive body of evidence outlining the harm that the spill has caused wildlife, in violation of federal laws such as the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, Marine Mammal Protection Act and Endangered Species Act.
So far, about 1,000 dead animals -- birds, turtles and dolphins -- have been reported and they are being kept at undisclosed locations. "They go to various intermediate storage locations before they are shipped to a central facility for archiving," said U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service spokesman Doug Zimmer, who did not name any of the locations.
"It is not so much the number of dead creatures as how they died that matters to the government, although obviously the more the harm, the higher the possible penalty," said University of Michigan Law School professor David Uhlmann, who worked for seven years as chief of the environmental crimes section at the federal Department of Justice. Uhlmann said the government likely will bring charges under the Clean Water Act and the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, both of which were used after the 1989 Exxon Valdez spill in Alaska.
Billions are at stake. In the Valdez case, Exxon agreed to pay $100 million as criminal restitution for the injuries caused to the fish, wildlife and lands of the spill region, which was divided evenly between the federal and state governments, according to the website for the Exxon Valdez Oil Spill Trustee Council, which was formed to oversee natural-resource restoration. But Exxon's largest payment came from its civil settlement, in which the oil company agreed to pay $900 million over 10 years to pay for restoration of natural resources injured by the spill.