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Courtesy/U.S. EPA Region 5

Officials clean waste oil overflow at Caterpillar, Inc.'s facility outside Joliet.  Coiled boom hoses and buoys used for river spill containment are visible in the foreground.

Waste oil spill near Joliet threatens wildlife

by Amanda Hughes
Feb 10, 2009

The large and diverse wildlife population of the Des Plaines River area near Joliet is potentially at risk until officials can determine the extent of the damage caused by a waste oil spill from a nearby Caterpillar, Inc. facility.

A U.S. Coast Guard helicopter survey conducted Sunday afternoon turned up no ecological damage, according to a U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Region 5 press release.

The approximately 65,000 gallons of waste oil overflowed when an electric pump failed Sunday morning at Caterpillar’s Rockdale facility just south of Joliet.

The waste oil storage pits were about 100 feet from the Des Plaines River, and approximately 10 percent—6,000 to 6,500 gallons—of the oil seeped into the water.

Response teams from the U.S. Coast Guard, Illinois EPA and U.S. EPA have contained the waste oil in the river where high-powered vacuum trucks will suck it out of the water.

Damage from the spill could have been more significant, but fortunately many native animal species migrate away from the Des Plaines River area during winter, leaving the region sparsely populated.

“All our waterfowl are still on wintering grounds and about to be migrating back north,” said Eric Schenck, regional biologist for Ducks Unlimited, a hunting and conservation organization.

Native birds such as mallards, bufflehead, Canada geese and swans travel farther south when temperatures dip in Illinois. They winter in a variety of places: lower Mississippi, Louisiana, Arkansas and some in Southern Illinois.

The birds won’t stay away forever, though, Schenck cautioned.

“With the warm weather we’re getting we’ll start seeing early spring migrants about any week now,” Schenck said.

Aerial survey data from the state Department of Natural Resources confirms Schenck’s prediction. Waterfowl are already beginning to migrate back to the Des Plaines River area. While 259 birds were spotted on Jan. 5, officials counted nearly 700 by the end of the month.

The question arises: What state will their home be in when the birds get back?

And for the fish of the Des Plaines River, the future is even more uncertain. The Des Plaines River is densely populated with aquatic life—almost 100 species of fish and crustaceans, including recreational fishing favorites such as catfish, carp and northern pike.

The U.S. Coast Guard said Monday there were no observable “fish kills” in the area, even though the spill contaminated a three-mile stretch of the river before it was contained.

According to officials, another helicopter survey is scheduled for Tuesday. The cleanup is expected to conclude Wednesday or Thursday.