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New York's Oil Spills Peril Unlikely Bird Sanctuary

Sludge pollutes waters between Staten Island and New Jersey, just as area begins to come clean; scientists are concerned as nests dwindle. FOUL WATERS

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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.

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