CASH SCHRIEFER says he knew the bird he was fishing out of the oil waste pit in southern Oklahoma in late January was big. He thought it was a goose at first, says the United States Fish and Wildlife Service special agent. But when Mr. Schriefer finally pulled the oil-covered bird out of the abandoned waste pit, he was amazed at its size. A six-foot wingspan, massive talons, and yellow beak told Schriefer immediately that the bird was a bald eagle.
Thousands of oil waste pits like the one that killed the eagle dot the arid plains of Texas, Oklahoma, and New Mexico. Biologists say more than 600,000 migratory birds die annually in the open waste pits of the three-state region; twice as many birds die each year in pits as were killed by Alaska's Exxon Valdez oil spill.
``The birds think the oil pits are water, so they land on them,'' says Midge Erskine, a bird rehabilitator from Midland, Texas, who has treated birds rescued from the tar-like goo.
``Very few birds escape death once they touch the oil,'' says Rob Lee, a special agent with the Fish and Wildlife Service, stationed in Lubbock. ``Sometimes a bird can escape from the pits, but they are going to die anyway because they have no way of cleaning their feathers. Anything more than minute amounts of oil is fatal.''
Authorities say most such birds die of hypothermia, because oil destroys their ability to retain body heat. Others die of poisoning while preening oil from their feathers.
The Fish and Wildlife Service began cracking down on companies that operate open waste pits after a year-long voluntary compliance period that ended last October. During the compliance period, federal officials encouraged oil companies to cover pits with screens or nets to prevent birds from touching the oily water.
On Oct. 1, agents began collecting dead birds from oil waste pits and more than 15 companies in Oklahoma and 30 in Texas face federal prosecution under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act.
Passed by Congress in 1918, the act protects 842 migratory birds from unlawful killing. Companies found guilty under the law face fines up to $10,000 and/or six months in jail for each violation. But despite stiff fines and possible prosecution, many oil companies have not covered pits.
The probe puts many oil and gas producers in a unusual position: Even though their waste pits may be operating legally under state law, they may still face federal prosecution.
Waste pits a common sight
Open waste pits and open-topped storage tanks are common sights in oil-producing areas. Brine is a byproduct of oil production. Pits or tanks are used to store salt water and occasionally for emergency storage of oil.
Although federal officials have been lobbying for a rule change, the Oklahoma Corporation Commission and the Texas Railroad Commission - state agencies responsible for regulating the oil industry - have not passed new rules requiring open pits and tanks to be covered.
Ms. Erskine and other conservationists blame the Railroad Commission for lax enforcement of a 1939 rule that prohibits the storage of oil in open earth pits. Using 130 inspectors, the Commission found 834 violations of the open pit rule last year. Yet it issued only 10 fines.
``I suppose if we had 1,000 inspectors we could find a higher percentage of these oil pits,'' says John Sharp, a Texas Railroad Commission member. ``Whenever someone reports them to us the open pit rule is enforced.''
But a lack of enforcement is evident. In Oklahoma, the pit that killed the bald eagle was reported to Oklahoma Corporation Commission inspectors last fall, but the inspector assigned to the case could not find the pit.
According to Schriefer, the company that owns the pit will be prosecuted under three federal laws: the Eagle Protection Act, the Endangered Species Act, and the Migratory Bird Treaty Act. Fines up to $50,000 and jail sentences could face company executives.
Although the bald eagle was the first eagle and the first endangered species known killed by an open pit, Lee has recovered dozens of other birds of prey including hawks, owls, roadrunners from the pits.
Colorado and California have required open pits to be covered with screens for years. Last June, in response to requests by Fish and Wildlife Service officials, New Mexico passed a similar measure. But the oil industry in Oklahoma and Texas has lobbied hard to prevent rule changes. Jim Allen, chairman of the Texas Mid-Continent Oil and Gas Producers Association's Regulatory Practices Committee, explains that his group opposes new rules requiring the facilities be covered.
``We believe an emphasis on compliance and enforcement of existing rules appears to be the appropriate response as opposed to a new rule,'' Mr. Allen says. ``You really don't need new regulations. There's already a federal law against killing migratory birds and there are commission rules that say you're not supposed to have oil on the pits. If people get prosecuted, that's a risk they take for not complying.''
Allen estimates netting most tanks would cost between $2,000 and $7,500. Federal prosecution will prompt many operators to close open pits, he says.
No oil companies have been prosecuted yet, but Fish and Wildlife Service officials say it is only a matter of time.
Victims hard to find
Estimating the real number of birds killed yearly by the oil pits is difficult because once birds land on the oil-fouled pits, they sink. Erskine says official estimates are probably low. She believes more than 1 million birds a year are killed by pits in the Central Flyway - the corridor in the middle of the US that birds follow.
The open pit issue has become increasingly important in light of declining duck populations. The mallard population has fallen from a historic average of 8.1 million to about 6.1 million. The pintail duck population is down from 5.4 million to 2.4 million.
Many biologists blame drought and habitat loss for the declining duck populations, but, according to Erskine, drought exacerbates the oil-pit problem. ``The birds see the oily ponds and they land on them,'' she explains. ``But during a drought, the number of dead birds goes way up, because that's the only water available.''