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Gulf oil spill: Fishermen hope for hazmat jobs

April 30, 2010 |  1:37 pm

Fishermen

They were Cajun and Italian, Vietnamese and Cambodian, in white shrimp boots and scuffed sneakers, with sun-baked faces and hard squinting eyes. By the hundreds, the fishermen had crowded into the gymnasium at Boothville-Venice Elementary School for a Friday training class arranged by BP, the oil company that had leased the offshore oil rig that exploded last week and is now threatening their livelihoods.

They were pinning their hopes on new jobs as hazmat cleanup and wetlands protection experts. They came from the local docks over in Venice, and from other out-of-the-way shrimp and oyster communities across Cajun south Louisiana --  Lafitte, Port Sulfur, Dulac. Some brought babies in their arms. The mood was tense. "It’s like takin’ ya heart out of ya chest," said Jerry Parria, 43. "I did a little investigation into that Exxon Valdez. It ain’t never got right over there."

The oil had only just begun to reach land, but they knew that the fishing season was likely over. Nobody was too excited to start a new career, however temporary, as a hazmat guy. But what else were they to do?  "Well, I hope they can just put us to work, like they said they gonna do," said shrimper Joseph Dean, 61. "I think this is going to be worse than Katrina."

Fisherguys

Terry Shelley, 58, one of the most successful oystermen in Port Sulfur, took a seat in the bleachers. What, he wondered, other than the spirit of human kindness, could compel BP to give these fishermen a good deal? The demand for work was high – as evinced by a chock-full gymnasium. "They’re just gonna screw ‘em all," he grumbled. "They’re going to pay 'em nothin'."

Billy Nungesser, the Plaquemines Parish president, grabbed a microphone and told them that the goal was to employ the locals as a key line of defense against the oil. "We want to enlist all the men and women of Plaquemines Parish to help put this boom out there," he said, referring to the floating barriers being placed around the wetlands. "Hopefully, we can catch this oil as it approaches the marsh."

An official from BP spoke next, in a refined British accent that stood out jarringly among the casual Louisiana brogues. "We’re here for the long haul," he told them. "We’re here to help. We’re here to do whatever we can to make this as right as possible."

Acy Cooper, Jr., a local shrimper and vice president of the Louisiana Shrimp Assn., offered up a heartfelt pep talk, while warning his fellow fishermen that in such a massive operation, they shouldn’t expect to be hired on immediately. "Nobody’s gonna work tomorrow – none of us," he said. But when they get to work, he said, no one would be better suited to lay boom or clean oil from the dizzyingly complex maze of bayous, rivers and inlets of South Louisiana. "We know the marsh," he said. "We know how the water runs."

The fishermen applauded forcefully. Soon after, a safety teacher dimmed the lights to show an instructional video called "Oil Spill Response." There was some fidgeting among the outdoorsmen -- it felt like an 8th grade educational film.

Meanwhile, the leak 5,000 feet under the sea gushed on.

-- Richard Fausset in Venice, La.

Photos: Local boat captains in the Boothville-Venice High School gym in Venice, La. Credit: Chris Graythen / Getty Images

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