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Jul 2, 2010 5:45 AM by Chris Welty

Volunteers Ready but Left Out of Spill Cleanup

NEW ORLEANS (AP) - BP and the Obama administration face mounting
complaints that they are ignoring foreign offers of equipment and
making little use of the fishing boats and volunteers available to
help clean up what may now be the biggest spill ever in the Gulf of
Mexico.
The Coast Guard said there have been 107 offers of help from 44
nations, ranging from technical advice to skimmer boats and booms.
But many of those offers are weeks old, and only a small number
have been accepted, with the vast majority still under review,
according to a list kept by the State Department.
And in recent days and weeks, for reasons BP has never
explained, many fishing boats hired for the cleanup have done a lot
of waiting around.
A report prepared by investigators with the House Committee on
Oversight and Government Reform for Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif.,
detailed one case in which the Dutch government offered April 30 to
provide four oil skimmers that collectively could process more than
6 million gallons of oily water a day. It took seven weeks for the
U.S. to approve the offer.
White House spokesman Robert Gibbs on Thursday scorned the idea
that "somehow it took the command 70 days to accept international
help."
"That is a myth," he declared, "that has been debunked
literally hundreds of times."
He said 24 foreign vessels were operating in the Gulf before
this week. He did not specifically address the Dutch vessels.
The help is needed. Based on some government estimates, more
than 140 million gallons of crude have now spewed from the bottom
of the sea since the April 20 explosion that killed 11 workers on
the Deepwater Horizon oil platform, eclipsing the 1979-80 disaster
off Mexico that had long stood as the worst in the Gulf.
Still, more than 2,000 boats have signed up for oil-spill duty
under BP's Vessel of Opportunity program. The company pays boat
captains and their crews a flat fee based on the size of the
vessel, ranging from $1,200 to $3,000 a day, plus a $200 fee for
each crew member who works an eight-hour day.
Rocky Ditcharo, a shrimp dock owner in Buras, La., said many
fishermen hired by BP have told him that they often park their
boats on the shore while they wait for word on where to go.
"They just wait because there's no direction," Ditcharo said.
He said he believes BP has hired many boat captains "to show
numbers."
"But they're really not doing anything," he added. He also
said he suspects the company is hiring out-of-work fishermen to
placate them with paychecks.
Chris Mehlig, a fisherman from Louisiana's St. Bernard Parish,
said he is getting eight days of work a month, laying down
containment boom, running supplies to other boats or simply being
on call dockside in case he is needed.
"I wish I had more days than that, but that's the way things
are," he said.
Billy Nungesser, president of Louisiana's hard-hit Plaquemines
Parish, said BP and the Coast Guard provided a map of the exact
locations of 140 skimmers that were supposedly cleaning up the oil.
But he said that after he repeatedly asked to be flown over the
area so he could see them at work, officials told him only 31
skimmers were on the job.
"I'm trying to work with these guys," he said. "But
everything they're giving me is a wish list, not what's actually
out there."
A BP spokesman declined to comment.
Newly retired Coast Guard Adm. Thad Allen, the government's
point man for the response effort, bristled at some of the
accusations in Issa's report.
"I think we've been pretty transparent throughout this," Allen
said at the White House. He disputed any suggestion that there
aren't enough skimmers being put on the water, saying the spill
area is so big that there are bound to be areas with no vessels.
The Coast Guard said there are roughly 550 skimmers working in
the Gulf, with 250 or so in Louisiana waters, 136 in Florida, 87 in
Alabama and 76 in Mississippi, although stormy weather in recent
days has kept the many of the vessels from working.
The frustration extends to the volunteers who have offered to
clean beaches and wetlands. More than 20,000 volunteers have signed
up to help in Florida, Alabama and Mississippi, yet fewer than one
in six has received an assignment or the training required to take
part in some chores, according to BP.
The executive director of the Alabama Coastal Foundation,
Bethany Kraft, said many people who volunteered are frustrated and
angry that no one has called on them for help.
"You see this unfolding before your eyes and you have this
sense that you can't do anything," she said. "To watch this
happen in our backyard and not be able to help is hard."
Some government estimates put the amount of oil spilled at 160
million gallons. That calculation was arrived at by using the rate
of 2.5 million gallons a day all the way back to the oil rig
explosion. The AP, relying on scientists who advised the government
on flow rate, bases its estimates on a lower rate of 2.1 million
gallons a day up until June 3, when a cut to the well pipe
increased flow.
By either estimate, the disaster would eclipse the Ixtoc
disaster in the Gulf two decades ago and rank as the biggest
offshore oil spill during peacetime. The biggest spill in history
happened in 1991 during the Persian Gulf War, when Iraqi forces
opened valves at a terminal and dumped about 336 million gallons of
oil.
The total in the Gulf disaster is significant because BP is
likely to be fined per gallon spilled. Also, scientists say an
accurate figure is needed to calculate how much oil may be hidden
below the surface, doing damage to the deep-sea environment.
"It's a mind-boggling number any way you cut it," said Ed
Overton, a Louisiana State University environmental studies
professor. "It'll be well beyond Ixtoc by the time it's
finished."

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