After it fired an employee who saved ducks from oilfield ponds near Rock Springs, Dominion Energy said it will strive to “better protect” animals that run perilously afoul of its facilities.
Dominion will work with wildlife officials to “expeditiously implement additional measures” to better protect animals that bypass existing deterrents at deadly oilfield facilities, a vice president wrote. She posted her statement Jan. 9 after WyoFile first reported Dominion fired employee Adam Roich who said he had saved 50 waterfowl during five years with the company.
Roich wrote on Facebook that he was fired for rescuing ducks. Dominion declined to give WyoFile a reason for his Dec. 19, 2019 termination. A company letter to Roich said he was let go was for violating company policy.
Roich and others would catch ducks that had landed in tainted oilfield ponds at the Canyon Creek field and would otherwise have frozen or died, he told WyoFile. He would wash then off with Dawn soap, dry them in his truck while he was working, then set them free.
Dominion abides by the federal Migratory Bird Treaty Act and other laws and regulations that restrict the handling of many birds, company officials say. Those laws and regulations “forbid our employees from retrieving the fowl,” a Dominion spokesman told WyoFile last week.
Now, however, the company is reviewing its policies.
“Dominion Energy is fully committed to care for the welfare of ducks and other water fowl,” Vice President and Chief Environmental Officer Amanda Tornabene wrote. “We are grateful to employees who have raised our awareness about the way we handle ducks if the prevention measures do not work.
“We will work with the State and U.S. Fish and Wildlife services to expeditiously implement additional measures to better protect animals that manage to bypass our prevention system,” her statement read.
Can you rescue a duck?
An oilfield worker can lawfully rescue a soiled duck, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife service, the agency responsible for overseeing the Migratory Bird Treaty Act. But laws and regulations limit what he or she can do with a distressed bird.
“Any person who finds a sick, injured, or orphaned migratory bird may, without a permit, take possession of the bird in order to immediately transport it to a permitted rehabilitator,” regulations read.
“Anyone can save a migratory bird,” Dave Olson, a wildlife biologist with U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service told WyoFile in a phone interview. “They don’t need a permit to take possession.”
A rescue, however must include “immediate transportation” to a permitted rehabilitator.
“If someone is taking possession of the bird for anything outside of the language above, it would technically not be legal,” wrote Joe Szuszwalak, an agency spokesman in Denver.
Szuszwalak would not speculate how law enforcement agents or prosecuting attorneys might handle a specific case, either against an employee or a company. Violations of the act can result in maximum penalties of $15,000 and/or six months in jail.
“Our interest is in conserving wildlife,” Szuszwalak said. “We wouldn’t view the act of a rescued bird as a priority” for law enforcement, he said.
Dominion could secure a “miscellaneous permit” under the migratory bird act that would let it catch and clean waterfowl in peril, Szuszwalak said. “They could capture and clean the birds and release them,” he said.
The company doesn’t have that permit, he said. An alternative would be to contract with a person who has such a permit, or to take waterfowl to a veterinarian who could them transfer them to a licensed rehabilitation facility, he said.
Agency biologist Olson characterized freelance rehabilitators without a permit as “in violation of a federal law.”
A Dominion spokesman didn’t elaborate on what steps the company might take to achieve the changes outlined in Tornabene’s statement.
Robin Hood of ruddy ducks?
Social media erupted at news of Roich’s firing.
“It might seem counterintuitive but what that employee did was breaking federal wildlife law and could have exposed the oil company to multiple lawsuits from your favorite folks at Wild Earth, CBD, etc.,” one commenter wrote. Roich also received overwhelming support, including from people who said he should be hired to save waterfowl.
“Please change your policy. Get the permits to let your employees save the ducks!” another Roich supporter tweeted to @Dominion Energy. “Give him his job back!” another critic wrote.
Wyoming Ducks Unlimited has been following the Roich waterfowl issue “very closely,” said Marty Carollo, volunteer chairman of the state chapter and resident of Green River. “I reached out specifically to our policy folks and biologist to make sure we’re aware of it and everybody knew what was going on and what we could do one way or another.”
Federal regs are very clear and precise,” Carollo said, “to make sure other impacts are not masked by an activity. Only certified rehabilitation specialists can legally clean the birds.”
He said a couple of trona mines in southwest Wyoming have programs to save and rehabilitate birds. Usually a veterinarian is involved, he said.
“There’s pathways to make sure we minimize our impacts,” Carollo said. “That’s just good citizenry and corporate behavior.”
Training is essential, he said. “If you’re not trained properly you can actually do more damage than leaving them be,” Carollo said of distressed waterfowl. He did not immediately know of any person in the region who might hold a permit to save or rehabilitate waterfowl, but said there are several veterinarians in Sweetwater County.
1 million birds a year
Oil and gas extraction produces large volumes of effluents, fluids that are frequently tainted with byproducts or oil and gas. Operators are responsible for containing, treating and disposing of those according to various permits issued by state and federal regulators.
Those standards require efforts to protect wildlife, although some losses are seen as inevitable.
“[Death] of migratory birds that occurs as the result of otherwise lawful activity is not a federal crime under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act,” Fish and Wildlife spokesman Szuszwalak wrote WyoFile.
Up to 1 million migratory birds die a year “because of exposure to oil pits found throughout the United States,” the BLM stated in 2013. Two decades ago, that number was 2 million, the agency stated, citing 1997 research.
“Since 1997, many oil and gas operators have taken measures to prevent migratory bird and other wildlife mortality in oil field waste pits,” the BLM stated. Oilfield production skim pits and centralized oilfield wastewater disposal facilities qualify as some of the deadly “oil pit” sites.
Wyoming’s Department of Environmental Quality imposes standards for such ponds. “[E]vaporation cells shall be kept virtually oil free at all times, or shall be completely netted or screened…” Wyoming regulations state. “If a sheen develops on any part of the evaporation cell [one type of oilfield pond] it shall be removed immediately by skimming,” or some other method, DEQ guidelines state.
Rules adopted by Wyoming’s Oil and Gas Conservation Commission state that permits for a wide variety of oilfield pits “shall be approved if the pit will not … endanger human health or wildlife.
“If timely fluid removal is not possible, the pit should be netted or otherwise secured in a manner that avoids the loss of wildlife, domestic animals, or migratory birds,” the rules read. “Alternative methods of netting or securing pits may be authorized ….”
Rules and laws other than the Migratory Bird Treaty Act may apply to energy operators, Szuszwalak wrote WyoFile. Those include the Endangered Species Act, the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act and the Oil Pollution Act, among others.
Roich told WyoFile he’s received an unusual amount of attention because of his story.
“I was trying to find people” to help institutionalize the rescues, he said. That may change. Since the story broke, “I’ve got a lot of random comments,” he said of his social media accounts.
Update: Jan. 14:
Fired oilfield worker Adam Roich said he was pleased to learn of Dominion Energy’s plans to explore new wildlife rescue options at its facilities.
Dominion Energy “is … exploring additional permitting and training of personnel, and partnerships with local veterinarians to better protect wildlife that manage to bypass our prevention (safety) system,” the company wrote in a statement Jan. 14. “Protecting wildlife is very important to all of us.”
Roich told WyoFile on Tuesday he is “proud of the company,” for its promised actions.
“I think that’s good on them for doing that,” he said. “That’s all I wanted out of this. I just wanted something better done for the ducks and the birds.”
Dominion has recorded 12 bird fatalities at the Canyon Creek and Trail Pond facilities since 2015, spokesman Don Porter wrote WyoFile in an email. “There was a three-year-plus period when no birds died,” his email read.