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A hard day's work on the front lines of oil cleanup

The men and women in the trenches start their shift at 5:30 a.m., making $12 an hour and sweltering in protective gear. The job is thankless because many locals view them as lazy.

July 02, 2010|By Louis Sahagun, Los Angeles Times

Reporting from Grand Isle, La. —

It is tedious and monotonous labor — heaving oil-soaked sand into plastic bags. Shovelful. After shovelful. After shovelful. After shovelful.

But most of all, it's hot, horribly hot. Just ask the crews hired by BP to clean beaches fouled by the nation's worst oil spill. When the oil is thick as brownie mix, or in liquid pools subject to splashing, the workers are sealed inside protective uniforms that zip up to the neck. No exceptions, even when temperatures near 100.

"Man, you really sweat in the white suits," said cleanup crew member Kathy Flannigan, 53, describing what it's like to wear the paper-like protective garb used when the oil is thick and not likely to fly about.

"But the yellow plastic suit is wicked," she said of the thicker uniform used when the oil is liquid. "In that suit, you look like a chicken and cook like one!"

When the heat index hits triple digits — an easy thing to do in monsoon season — BP safety rules require that cleanup crews alternate between 20 minutes of hard labor and 40 minutes of cooling off and hydrating under shady tarps. That routine hasn't won the crew much sympathy — or thanks.

"It drives locals crazy," said Bridge Side Marina owner Budd Vegas. "These crews don't seem to be working hard enough. Their hearts aren't in it."

The crew members see things differently. "We are part of history. We are doing our part," said Fecundo Gonzales Jr., 40, who sought the job when construction work dried up. "This job is worth it because we have to rid this state of spilled oil, and eventually we will."

But so far the victories are few.

At sunrise on a recent day, 14 dusty yellow buses rumbled out of a base camp at Grand Isle State Park, packed with 800 workers psyched up to attack the oil. But just as the buses neared cleanup sites, lightning snaked across the gunmetal sky.

The 14 drivers dutifully turned their buses around and trundled back to base camp, where the crew was herded inside a sprawling tent to await better weather.

Besides the on-and-off-duty rules, BP safety regulations prohibit cleanup crews from working within 10 miles of lightning. So another day would pass without so much as a single tar ball being collected from Grand Isle beaches.

"We resent the heck out of the fact that they've been here for weeks and the beaches are still not clean," said Bob Sevin, 72, a longtime resident who walks the sand here each day and keeps a wary eye on the workers.

For the cleanup crews, the lightning flashes and quick retreat to camp symbolized their existence: fitful starts and frustrating stops often triggered by things beyond their control.

"I understand how some people don't like what they see from afar, but it's not the whole story," said Michael Franklin, 49, who hired onto the crew in May. "We're just worker bees. We don't call the shots. When it is safe to do so, we work our butts off."

The prevailing mood at the base camp some describe as "a gumbo stew" of ethnic backgrounds, classes, age groups and languages has been downright glum. Hardly a day goes by without a news report featuring images of workers taking breaks in the shade or trampling over bird nests.

Critics have suggested that the crews were organized to improve BP's public image. It didn't help when the company bused in 400 extra workers dressed in snazzy red shirts, blue jeans and black boots during a recent visit by President Obama — and then removed them after he left.

Often, there is no escaping the angry gazes from some of the 1,500 people who live on this 7-mile-long island in southeastern Louisiana.

The workers were searching for an end to unemployment in difficult economic times when they turned to BP's oil cleanup program. Now, they belong to one of the largest and fastest-growing workforces since the Hurricane Katrina recovery.

About 30,000 crew members are currently deployed from Louisiana to Florida. "A month ago, we had half that number of contract cleanup workers," BP spokesman Bryan Ferguson said. "Realizing the conditions under which they are performing their work — the climate, the pace — it really says a lot about their spirit and their sense of commitment."

Many swapped home lives for tent communities, motel rooms and fishing camps subsidized by BP. Paid $12 an hour, these onetime accountants, construction workers, short-order cooks, public relations officers and house cleaners have one assignment: dumping pounds of contaminated sand into one 30-gallon bag after another.

On his first day on the beach, Franklin wondered what he had gotten himself into.

"There I was, with a shovel in one hand, a garbage bag in the other, zipped up in a white hazardous-materials suit and facing wave upon wave of incoming oil," recalled the former aerospace industry project manager who was in foreclosure on his home and behind on car payments when he took the job. "I kept thinking, 'This is hopeless. There is no way we will win this battle.' "

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