1990 – American Trader – California

Cleaned of oil, Brown Pelicans were released after the February 1990 American Trader oil spill in Huntington Beach, CA. Photo: International Bird Rescue
More than 400,000 gallons of oil spilled from the American Trader on Orange County beaches. Map: California’s Office of Spill Prevention and Response (OSPR)

On Feburary 7, 1990 the oil tanker American Trader, just a mile off Huntington Beach, CA, ran over its own anchor, puncturing its hull. It leaked 400,000 gallons of crude into marine waters causing the death of thousands of seabirds. The spill cleanup forced a the three-week closure of 15 miles of Orange County coastline.

After hundreds of mainly Brown Pelicans were rescued, International Bird Rescue’s response team worked at a quickly constructed temporary wildlife response center at Terminal Island near the Port of Los Angeles. Other birds affected included Western Grebes, Clark’s Grebes, Scoters, and Sandpipers. An estimated 3,400 birds perished in this spill.

Note: This Orange County oil spill was a catalyst for change in California – especially as it followed the 1989 Exxon Valdez tanker spill that dumped 11 million gallons into Alaska’s Prince William Sound. With urgency, Bird Rescue advocated state leaders for a permanent response facilities.

In September 1990, the California Legislature passed the Lempert-Keene-Seastrand Oil Spill Prevention and Response Act. This act helped create the Department of Fish and Wildlife’s Office of Spill Prevention and Response (OSPR) and in turn led to a new Oiled Wildlife Care Network (OWCN). As a founding member of this now 40 member organization, Bird rescue co-manages two permanent wildlife response centers.

From a Bird Rescue report on the American Trader response:

Jay Holcomb, Executive Director of IBRRC (then called International Bird Rescue Research Center), arrived early on February 8th to assess the situation and direct the response efforts. Accompanying him was Millicent Wood, Bird Rescue’s southern California representative. They immediately set up an intake station at a Huntington Beach lifeguard station to accept birds. After doing a “fly over” of the spill site, Holcomb recommended to agents for the spiller that a facility large enough for 500 birds be quickly constructed. A search was made of the region for a warehouse that could be adapted for such a use. The Ship Services warehouse on Terminal Island was determined to be both appropriate and available.

Mimi Wood Harris, left, response team member, along with Jay Holcomb, then Bird Rescue Executive Director, caring for a oiled Brown Pelican during the 1990 American Trader spill in Huntington Beach, CA.

The spiller agents, Paul Clem and Bob Smith from ARCO, acted on behalf of the American Trader and British Petroleum (the owner of the spilled product) to oversee the initial expenditure of funds for the project. Clem and Smith had been responsible for setting up facilities at the Arco Anchorage oil spill in Port Angeles, Washington in 1986. Together with Jay Holcomb and Curt Clumpner, workers were given direction on how to build facilities for holding pens, washing/rinsing stations, and outside pools and aviaries. The construction began on Friday, February 9, 1990 and was for the most part completed early Monday morning, February 12th. This was accomplished by employing craftsmen on a 24 hour, 3-shift basis. It was the first time such a large undertaking had been completed in such a short time frame.

“It should be noted that, because no per-designated facilities were available at the time of the spill, the response effort was negatively impacted. It took two days to locate a work able site and three days to make it operational…” – Jay Holcomb, Executive Director of IBRRC

The Ship Services warehouse had several old but functional rooms available for an administrative office, volunteer training room and dinner hall, bird washing and rinsing room, and intake room. Inside the large warehouse, two wooden rooms (40′ x 40′) were constructed and equipped with lights, heating, exhaust fans and entry and exit doors. We estimated that approximately 500 oiled birds would be captured so the buildings were built to handle that amount of birds. Oiled birds were housed in one room and clean birds were housed in the other. Birds were kept in wooden pens of various sizes and two basic designs. One type had elevated net-bottoms and sheet covers and the other type had solid flooring (with towels placed for padding) and sheets over the top.

A third small room (15′ x 15′) was built and used for veterinary services. It contained an in-house laboratory complete with a serum chemistry machine, a microscope, centrifuge, refractometer, and ancillary supplies. Special plumbing and a wooden wash table were installed into a latrine facility to convert it to a washing and rinsing room. Outside the warehouse, six pools and a large pelican enclosure (25’W x 40’L and 8’H) were constructed to house clean birds prior to their release.

Front page of the Orange County edition of the Los Angeles Times, February 8, 1990.

It should be noted that, because no per-designated facilities were available at the time of the spill, the response effort was negatively impacted. It took two days to locate a work able site and three days to make it operational. This is a critical factor since the birds have a narrow “window” of time (e.g., 5-7 days) after which there is a predictable diminishing return for all efforts invested.

During the five-day interim period, only a single shower was available at the lifeguard station and it could not produce enough hot water to wash and rinse even one bird. Therefore, about 100 birds waited three to five days before they could be washed. With several species, (e.g., the loons and scoters), every day in captivity increases the likelihood of captive leg joint and keel infections which can cause irreversible infections and injuries. Leg infections were a major cause of extended care and increased mortality in the scoters.

Since the American Trader spill, the facilities at Ship Services were made available six times in 1991 and were mobilized for use. Birds cared for in those spills were assisted in a timely fashion because the facilities were functional and ready when needed. This helped to increase the overall survivability of the birds.

Oiled birds rescued Mortality Released Release Rate
565 226 310 60%

Good News in 2009

Nearly 20 years later a banded Brown Pelican R-318 that was rehabilitated and released after the spill was spotted on September 27th, 2009 in Long Beach, CA. This adult pelican was at least 4 years old at the time of washing. At at the time it was one of the oldest rehabilitated oiled birds on record. It was one of 31 rehabilitated brown pelicans that were fitted with radio transmitters on their backs.

Read more: 30 years ago, miles of O.C. beaches were fouled by a devastating oil spill, Daily Pilot, February 7, 2020

American Trader Incident Summary, California Department of Fish and Wildlife, Office of Spill Prevention and Response (OSPR)