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Gulf oil spill: Cambodian cleanup workers speak out

June 8, 2010 |  1:27 pm

Sachi Cunningham, a Los Angeles Times videographer, has shot a remarkable nine-minute video on the lives of Cambodian fishermen hired to clean up BP’s massive oil spill. This vivid tale unfolded over the course of a week at sea in the Gulf of Mexico and at port in Louisiana (see above).

Cunningham delved into the subject after attending a meeting of concerned Vietnamese and Cambodian fishermen in Buras, La., a remote bayou community that is home to about 2,000 Southeast Asian immigrants.

Phan Plork, a 42-year-old shrimper who is featured in the video, was in charge of 15 boats that left from Venice, La., 17 days after the April 20 explosion of the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig.

After the first night at sea, 11 of the boats returned to Buras to wait out a storm (the others waited at sea). The shrimp boats are built to work in the bay rather than in open water, where the bulk of the spilled oil is located. As a result, Plork and his fleet spent much of their time waiting out bad weather or waiting to get refueled.

Frustrations abounded.

"We spent an entire day at dock in Empire, La., waiting for BP to wire money to a gas station, only to learn at the end of the day that they would instead have to refuel in Venice," Cunningham said.

In Buras, Cunningham met Neng Pum, who lives on a boat with her boyfriend. Neng introduced her to Rithy Om, another a Cambodian refugee, whose son and daughter-in-law had moved to Buras from San Diego with their two young sons in order to shrimp this season.  Instead, like their neighbor Phan, they are out in the gulf cleaning up BP's oil.

"I wanted to share all of their stories but focused on Phan since he was a leader in the Cambodian community and was among the first to get out to sea," Cunningham says. "After 11 days of work, the six bags of partially oil-soaked booms that you see in the video are all that Phan and his boat collected."

Later, she caught up with Tommy Berthelot, a longtime shrimper who was part of Phan's fleet and appears in the video during his last break. Berthelot told Cunningham that once their collecting technique improved, they were pulling in two or three times as much oil, but the video illustrated how difficult the task is.

"We don't know anything about cleaning up oil until yesterday," Phan says in the video. Phan would have started the season in May, bringing in enough money to support his wife, five children and granddaughter. Instead, he is getting paid half the amount for an unknown period of time.

But Phan knows this is "a take-it-or-leave-it deal" and will do what he needs to in order to make money while shrimping is prohibited.

Last week, Phan was near Pensacola, Fla., cleaning up the spill. His wife, Tal, did not know when he would be home next but said they were away for weeks at a time.

"Every day I just pray for everybody," says Tal, who worries about the safety of her husband and the other fishermen. No one know what the health effects of the spill will be for workers such as Phan.

Mike Berthelot, Tommy's father, is upset that so many boats were still waiting to get called to work on the cleanup rather than bringing in shrimp.

"It won't recover in my lifetime," Berthelot told Cunningham.  "This is the beginning of the end."

-- Margot Roosevelt