SANCCOB responds to oiled wildlife affected by Astron Energy diesel spill in Table Bay Nature Reserve

The Southern African Foundation for the Conservation of Coastal Birds (SANCCOB) has responded to diesel affected water birds caused by a diesel spill from the Astron Energy plant. The reported leak took place in Koeberg Road into the Table Bay waterways that runs through Rietvlei Wetland Reserve and joins with Milnerton Lagoon, on Tuesday, 19 April. SANCCOB was made aware two days later, on 20 April when an oiled Common Moorhen was admitted. The bird presented with severe neurological behaviour, likely caused by the fume inhalation, and unfortunately, needed to be euthanised. SANCCOB has since met with representatives from Table Bay Nature Reserve, City of Cape Town Biodiversity Management and Water Pollution, and Astron Energy. 

Thus far, two Common Moorhens and three Red-knobbed Coot have died after being brought to SANCCOB. The damage caused to the ecosystem and the effects on other wildlife have not yet been fully evaluated but are likely to be far greater than the death of the birds reported to date. EnviroServ has placed booms in Diep River to contain the spilled diesel and SANCCOB deploys teams twice daily to identify and rescue affected wildlife, with Table Bay Nature Reserve Rangers also carrying out regular searches on a daily basis. Whilst clean-up operations and measures were implemented to contain the spilled diesel on Tuesday, these were not fully effective as diesel still moved further downstream. To address this, EnviroServ duplicated booms, placed additional booms to cover a larger area, and placed peat along the booms to absorb the spilled diesel. The City of Cape Town is collecting water samples to be analysed, taken from Diep River to the estuary and lagoon. 

SANCCOB’s Head of Conservation, Nicky Stander, says, “The recent diesel pollution spill caused by Astron Energy highlights their lack of preparedness relating to wildlife response. Far too often, we observe industry overlooking their obligation to effectively plan and prepare for pollution impacts on sensitive wildlife. The Astron Energy plant operates in the vicinity of rich biodiversity and sensitive ecosystems which have been polluted by diesel fuel. SANCCOB strongly advocates for responsible international best practice by ensuring a comprehensive wildlife contingency plan to ensure a rapid response by identified stakeholders. Diesel fuel has been proven to be fatal to water birds and seabirds due to the toxic nature of the product. Rapid rescue of affected birds may provide a window of opportunity to successfully stabilise individuals although the prognosis will remain guarded. However, in this case, the affected water birds had prolonged exposure to diesel fuel, both internally and externally, which undoubtedly caused severe complications to the respiratory and central nervous systems”.  

“The remediation of impacted waterways is concerning; diesel spilled in the ocean can quickly break up due to wave and wind action; however, these waterways have relatively little movement. The diesel product will also make its way into the reed and soil systems; these hydrocarbons are harmful to aquatic species that depend on these habitats,” according to Stander. 

“Two of the five birds that were admitted to SANCCOB were severely compromised. They were suffering and immediately euthanised. When birds are oiled, the first 24 hours are critical; birds need to be stabilised before the oil is washed from the feathers. Birds oiled by diesel is approached differently; it is particularly dangerous because it causes severe skin irritation/burns, and so immediate washing is required to alleviate the skin irritation. Without the opportunity for stabilisation, washing is more dangerous, and many birds cannot cope with the stress of the decontamination procedure. Birds are not only affected by the diesel externally but also ingest and inhale the substance, which causes inflammation in the respiratory and digestive systems. It is very difficult to save birds that have been affected by diesel,” according to Dr David Roberts, Clinical Veterinarian at SANCCOB. 

Sightings of diesel affected birds can be reported to SANCCOB Cape Town in Table View on 021 557 6155 or emergency after hours on 078 628 3731. Please do not attempt to catch or wash affected birds; diesel is toxic to human health; therefore, appropriate personal protective equipment is required. Diesel fuel is a clear or slightly coloured liquid therefore affected wildlife will not present with the typical black tar substance that one may expect to see. Fur or feathers may look wet or waxy.