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Gulf oil spill: Tensions mount over clean-up jobs

May 12, 2010 |  3:00 am


Fisherman1
Louisiana fishermen, thrown out of work by the massive oil spill that has closed coastal waters, are jockeying for jobs to contain the mess. But just who gets those jobs is a source of mounting tension. Some workers are getting paid to go out on the water multiple days in a row, while others aren't allowed to go out at all, according to some fishermen.

They said that BP, which had promised to pay each fisherman $5,000 a month for compensation, is dallying on handing out checks. And they said that men who haven't fished in years are getting paid to work on prevention teams, even though they're not affected by the oil spill.

"It's all about who you know," said fisherman Oliver Rudesill, who was sitting in the shade beside the St. Bernard Parish home of a friend on Sunday. He has not earned a cent since the spill started, he said, while others are making hundreds of dollars a day. 

His friend, David Palmer, a 33-year old fisherman with three kids, has been told his turn won't come until June. "It's so messed up it's not even funny," said Palmer, whose home sits on pylons to avoid the swampy grasses. "A person can't wait 30 to 40 days to go work."

 Every day, hundreds of fishermen pile onto boats to lay reels of white and orange booms along the ocean to absorb the oil and protect local wildlife. In St. Bernard Parish, a crew member can make $36 an hour and a captain can make $46, plus $650 a day for big boats.

The number of fishermen affected by the spill is estimated to be in the tens of thousands. In Louisiana alone, there were 11,191 commercial fishing permits issued to residents in 2009, and each license means an average of about about 2.5 people per boat, because the numbers don't include deckhands, said George Barisich, president of the United Commercial Fisherman's Association.

The boom effort is funded by BP. An emergency management team, ResponseForce 1, has set up shop in St. Bernard and is hiring 50 to 70 workers at what Chief Executive Edward Minyard calls an above-average wage. Some workers from here have gotten prevention jobs in other states.

Fishermen get monthly compensation checks, regardless of whether they lay booms. BP spokesman Bryan Ferguson said 4,700 loss-of-income claims had been filed, and that the company pays up to $5,000 a month on these claims.There are more than 70 workers processing the claims throughout the South, he said, and the claims processors are getting to fishermen as quickly as they can.

The frustration stretches to other locations, including Plaquemines Parish, where Acy Cooper, vice president of the Louisiana Shrimp Assn, said that only about a quarter of the men who want to work are getting  hired. "How can I sit back and watch some boats go out while others don't?" he  said, standing on a dock and looking across at the commercial fishing boats nearby.

Fishermen in Plaquemines are starting to point fingers. They talk about back-room deals cut -- trading shrimp for the ability to go out and conduct cleanup operations. There, captains with boats over 45  feet can make $2,000 a day, some of which they have to divide with their crew. "Everybody wants to go out, but we can't make a dollar," said Kip Rhoto, a fisherman cleaning his boat on a slow day in the Venice harbor.

Palmer, the St. Bernard fisherman, is also concerned about a release form he was asked to sign absolving St. Bernard Parish and "a third  party" from negligent conduct related to containment operations. Two lawyers advised him that he could be signing away his rights to receive compensation from BP, he said.

Craig Taffaro, the president of St. Bernard Parish, said that form was  just for insurance purposes and that no fishermen were being asked to sign away their rights. Taffaro said that he empathizes with concerns that people aren't getting enough work, but that there aren't enough supplies to send everyone out at once.

"If we had more materials, more people would go out," he said. "But the reality is that this program has put more people in the water locally than anywhere else." Taffaro has repeatedly asked the government for more booms so that more fishermen can be employed.

 "There seems to be a nationwide shortage of boom," said Minyard, of ResponseForce1, which has supervised the construction of a floating  dock in Shell Beach, St. Bernard Parish, so that more booms can be loaded onto boats.

But Ferguson, the BP spokesman, said there's no shortage of booms. About 1.4 million feet, or 264 miles, have been deployed, he said, and 1.4 million feet are available. The Air Force delivered an additional 150,000 feet of booms to a Naval base in Plaquemines Parish on Tuesday.

Ferguson added that BP is employing 9,300 local people on the water throughout Louisiana, Mississippi and Florida.  He did not know how  many of those employed were fishermen, but he said that the decisions about which fishermen get sent out onto the water are made by local authorities. Local parishes say the fishermen are chosen at random by picking names out of a hat.

Kevin Heier is earning $900 a day to lay booms far from home in Dauphin Island, Ala.,and said he'd been told he could be earning that  salary for months. But Heier, who lost his equipment during Hurricane  Katrina, said the generous pay won't replace everything that's been ruined by the oil.

Getting antsy about just sitting around, some are throwing up their hands in disgust. Every day in Plaquemines Parish, a crowd forms around the makeshift office where BP is handing out checks. Vietnamese fishermen sit on chairs in the shade, waiting to fill out paperwork, as pickup trucks pull in and out of the lot. "Nobody knows what's happening. That's why we're still here, waiting," said Andy Le, a Venice fisherman.

The hassle and danger aren't worth it for New Orleans fisherman Brett Ryan, who was smoking a cigarette outside the makeshift headquarters. The charter boat captain said that the both oil and the dispersants used to clean it are hazardous. Ryan took clients out on the water to fish for tuna, and oil from the sea left dark blotches on their clothes, he said. "I don't want to expose myself to that hazard for low pay," he said.

No one else hanging out at the center agreed.

--Alana Semuels

Photo: David Palmer , age 33, left, has not decided whether or not to sign the release of responsibility that St. Bernard Parish requires, which means he will not be paid for the three days of work he has already done in the oil spill relief effort. Oliver Rudesill, age 28, has already worked several days on boats assisting in the oil relief effort, and received payment. He must now wait for his turn to come around again. Credit: Carolyn  Cole /Los Angeles Times

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