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Several birds covered in oil from Charleston restaurant admitted to wildlife rehab center

Amy Salim started caring for an oil-covered osprey the moment it was admitted to the Carolina Wildlife Rehabilitation Center on Aug. 11.

The bird, found in a West Ashley pond, was rehydrated with IV fluids and received activated charcoal treatments to treat the effects of ingested oil it may have swallowed while preening, or cleaning its feathers with its beak.

“He was just absolutely coated in it. His feathers were sticking together,” Salim said. “This is possibly the worst case that I’ve ever seen.”

Ospreys are huge eagle-like white birds with black markings on their wings. They are not an endangered species but are protected under the Migratory Species Act.

Ospreys are unique because they feed on live fish and can dive to catch them, which is how Salim said the one under the rehab center’s care likely ended up in the pond. Two green herons were also rescued from the pond and treated at the Carolina Wildlife Rehabilitation Center, a nonprofit with locations in the Charleston, Myrtle Beach and Charlotte areas. 

When covered in oil, ospreys and other birds cannot regulate their temperature and eat, among other obvious problems like pain and discomfort.

The oil in the pond next to Ashley Crossing Drive came from West Ashley restaurant Rio Chico, located at 1975 Magwood Drive. Citizens of a nearby neighborhood notified the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control, and the state agency visited the pond with an inspector from the city of Charleston’s Department of Stormwater Management.

On Aug. 12, the city issued Rio Chico with a notice of violation and gave the restaurant one week to remedy the situation.

“I think it’s a valuable thing for the restaurant industry to remember how important proper disposal is,” said Director of Stormwater Management Matthew Fountain, who estimates he receives 10 to 12 calls about “illicit discharge” from restaurants each year. “It's great when someone does let us know because then we can stop it.”

Rio Chico Manager Victor Castro said a broken kitchen line caused a combination of grease and water to travel from the restaurant through the parking lot to a storm drain that feeds into the pond.

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The grease trap Rio Chico manager Victor Castro says the restaurant uses to dispose of excess grease. Parker Milner/Staff 

In the 30 or so feet between the restaurant and the storm drain sits a grease trap, where Castro said the restaurant’s excess grease is deposited and picked up once a month.

“Because it was raining a lot the past week, it went really, really fast all the way over there,” said Castro, who has worked at Rio Chico for 18 years, while pointing to the storm drain on Aug. 15. “We have the container right there, so there’s no reason for us to dump oil in the street.”

Rio Chico has hired Moran Environmental Recovery to lead the cleanup efforts, project manager James Outten confirmed. Outten, who first visited the site Aug. 15, was unable to elaborate on what those efforts would entail. 

Rio Chico was not fined, and the city of Charleston will reassess the situation on Aug. 19. Whether the oil was intentionally dumped or the result of accidental runoff is not the city’s immediate concern, Fountain said.

“Either way, we’re just saying, ‘Hey, we need to get this stuff out of our waterway,’ ” Fountain said, discussing what he expects from Rio Chico in the next week. “Normally we want to see that there’s been a true, significant good-faith effort.”

Other animals have been found injured in the pond since the osprey and green herons were rescued.

Two anhingas — long-necked, long-tailed birds sometimes called snakebirds — were on their way to the rehab center on Aug. 15, Salim said, and multiple turtles will soon be transported to a local facility. An alligator was also exposed to the oil.

Some animals did not survive the spill, including a hawk and a couple of aquatic birds.

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Two green herons rest after a wash. The birds were rescued from a pond near West Ashley restaurant Rio Chico. Carolina Wildlife Rehabilitation Center/Provided 

The osprey and green herons remain in stable condition, but they are not out of the woods yet. According to Salim, the birds have gone through multiple washes — a stressful process that can require anesthesia — and will be in the rehab center for weeks.

The recovery of injured and oiled animals is ongoing, Salim said. More than 20 volunteers have assisted in the rescues so far.

“Our concern moving forward is just obviously mitigating the environmental concerns,” Salim said. “It’s a really stressful process for the animals.”

Those wishing to contribute to the care of these animals can donate to the Carolina Wildlife Rehabilitation Center. For more information on how to donate, visit cwrcwildlife.org.

Reach Parker Milner at 843-830-3911. Follow him on Twitter @parkermilner_. Subscribe to CHS Menu newsletter