IF ever there were an unlikely environmental cause, the preservation of lands around New York's polluted Arthur Kill and Kill Van Kull waterways could be it. Who would guess that an area surrounded by electric power plants, industry, a sewage-treatment plant, and the world's largest garbage landfill would be home to a bird sanctuary?
In fact, thousands of birds make their homes in the wetlands of the Arthur Kill and on two small islands, one in the Arthur Kill, the other in the Kill Van Kull, in this 16-mile strait between New Jersey and Staten Island.
Vital to the Northeast economy, the canal ushers through billions of gallons of petroleum each year. Industry has helped shelter the wildlife by isolating the area.
But there is trouble: Oil spills in the area that have occurred since January are beginning to turn the wildlife refuge into a sticky trap. And scientists are worried the effects will be felt for a long time.
Many of the spills are small and have been happening for years. But several big spills this year have been cause for more concern over the fate of the birds.
The biggest spill occurred on Jan. 2 when a pipeline owned by Exxon ruptured, pouring into the Arthur Kill 567,000 gallons of heating oil. That was just the first of what has amounted to a spill a day in the area so far this year, according to Coast Guard statistics.
Following the January pipeline rupture came a February incident in which 30,000 gallons of heating oil leaked from a barge that was unloading at Exxon's Bayonne, N.J., refinery. Then there was a barge explosion in March that sent 127,000 gallons of oil into the Arthur Kill.
Most recently, in mid-June, a tanker leaked 260,000 gallons of heavy heating oil into the Kill Van Kull.
More than 600 birds were killed by the January spill alone. But what also concerns environmentalists is the possible long-term damage to wildlife in the waterways.
Some researchers, studying the 1,200 pairs of herons that migrate to the kills in the spring, say the number of nests created this year is well below usual.
``In some rookeries, we're talking about birds creating only 10 percent of the nests they did last year,'' says Andrew Willner, a researcher with the American Littoral Society, an environmental research group in Sandy Hook, N.J.
Mr. Willner says the food sources that the nesting birds and their offspring need - worms, fish, shrimp, and small animals - have been killed by the oil spills.
``There had been an amazing, flourishing breeding colony out there,'' says Katherine Parsons, director of the Harbor Herons project, a 30-year review of the Arthur Kill area's birdlife, sponsored by the nonprofit Trust for Public Land and the New York Audubon Society. ``The concern is that could be destroyed.''
Dr. Parsons cautions that it is still too early to determine how harmful this year's spills have been on the waterway's wildlife. But, she says, the effects of major oil spills are often felt years later. She cites an oil spill that occurred 21 years ago in Buzzards Bay off West Falmouth, Mass.; marshes have still not fully recovered.
Sadly, this year's oil spills in Arthur Kill have come just as the waters have begun to come clean.
While experts agree that the kills are still among the most polluted waterways in America, much of the raw sewage that had been dumped by municipalities has stopped as a result of the Clean Water Act of 1972.
Parsons says the sewage robbed the water of its oxygen, eliminating food sources for the birds. The birds started coming back in 1978 as food sources were restored, she says.
Donald Decker, a Staten Island truck driver, owns one of the few houses on the Arthur Kill. He fears the series of oil spills will undo the environmental healing of the waterway.
``I've lived here my whole life,'' Mr. Decker says. ``Twenty years ago the DDT used to come right down this river like soap suds. To see that stop and see the birds come here is amazing. Every year there have been more birds and more nests. But since this year's oil spills, I haven't seen as many birds or their nests.''
Nina Sankovitch, a costal resources lawyer with the Natural Resources Defense Council, an environmental organization, blames the oil companies' negligence for the spills. ``They've put profits first, safety second,'' she says. ``Many of these spills could have been prevented.''
The New Jersey Assembly and Senate have passed legislation levying fines of $10 million on companies responsible for spills of 50,000 gallons or more. The bill is expected to be signed by Gov. James Florio within the next few weeks.
Exxon USA spokesman Amos Plante says additional fines would not prevent oil spills. ``Just the loss of the product and the money we have to pay for the cleanup is incentive enough for us not to spill anything,'' he says.
Still, resident Decker says it may be too late. ``Too bad they didn't put these new safety regulations in before all the birds were killed,'' he says. ``The damage is already done.''