Distrust hampers BP effort to enlist fishermen in oil spill flight

The BP plan is to pay fishermen to deploy booms from their own boats. Fisherman want to help combat the Gulf of Mexico oil spill, but a liability form is causing widespread confusion.

By , Staff writer

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    Louisiana fishermen Eric Melerine (l.) and Lance Melerine hang out after pulling some of their crab traps out of the water after government officials ruled that the catch was contaminated by the Gulf of Mexico oil spill and could not be sold.
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A BP program aimed at employing fishermen to help the company protect coastline from the Gulf of Mexico oil spill is being undermined by confusion and distrust.

BP's Vessel of Opportunity program is promising to employ hundreds if not thousands of boatmen across the Gulf. The company will pay them to take out their own boats and deploy containment booms along the coast, provided they complete a five hour safety and hazardous materials handling course first.

But a liability waiver issued to boatmen Plaquemines Parish this weekend spread confusion, with many fishermen worried that signing the waiver would forfeit their rights to file a claim against BP for economic losses they’ve suffered from the spill, though BP has said that is not the case. Moreover, others said the oil company was offering too little pay for the work.

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IN PICTURES: Louisiana oil spill

It is a glimpse at the difficulty of attempting to marshal resources along the Gulf coast to fight the spill – even among those who arguably stand to lose the most from the disaster.

The first mandatory five-hour class was held in Venice, La., on Friday afternoon. It has since been expanded to four other regional command centers in Mississippi, Alabama, and Florida, according to a BP spokesperson. The program hired 50 boats in Plaquemines Sunday and began loading booms while waiting for high winds to clear, said spokesperson Ayana McIntosh-Lee.

The liability form

But rough weather was only one obstacle hampering the first weekend of the effort. Already worried about losing their livelihoods after Louisiana state officials closed all fishing east of the Mississippi River Friday, many fishermen were loath to sign any document that could potentially limit their ability to recoup losses from BP in the future.

“There was some enthusiasm for this at first, but not anymore,” says Paul Barrios of Plaquemines, who owns five boats serving as tenders for the oil industry. “A lot of it had to do with signing that piece of paper.”

Mr. Barrios, who attended a public meeting last Friday held by the parish government and BP preceding the first training class, said a number of fishermen he knows completed the training and are waiting to be called for work.

“I think BP is doing this mostly to get some of the fishermen off their back,” he suggests, adding that, as a practical matter, many of the fishermen are not well equipped for the operation. “Most of their boats are not insured. Most of their boats are made out of fiberglass, which isn’t good for rough or shallow water, and most don’t have a large enough work deck for doing that kind of work.”

For its part, BP attempted to address the confusion over the legal waiver this weekend, says Ms. McIntosh-Lee.

“This was a basic waiver that concerned only the work they were being trained to do, and was not related to any economic claims,” she said. “We had some questions from some individuals about this, so we decided they didn’t need to sign the waiver form. We gave the signed forms back to anyone who asked for them. We are no longer asking anyone to sign this form.”

Price is not right

In Venice, some boat owners have also complained that the pay offered by BP to deploy booms was a fraction of the money they could earn fishing. Under the program, boat owners will be paid between $1,200 a day for boats under 30 feet to as much as $2,000 a day for boats over 45 feet. BP will pay for fuel, while captains will pay crews from their own pay. In the Gulf region, fisherman can gross $10,000 a day on their catch.

“This program won’t pay per day what they would make fishing," McIntosh-Lee says. Then again, BP insists that if anyone has a legitimate claim to economic loss, it will honor that claim. McIntosh-Lee says there is an 800 number on the company’s website for claims to be made by phone.

“All legitimate claims with be paid expeditiously,” she adds.

President Obama and Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal have criticized BP’s response to the spill, with Governor Jindal questioning whether the oil company has the resources to address the disaster. On Saturday, Jindal specifically questioned whether containment booms were being used efficiently by BP.

Meanwhile, state and parish officials in coastal Louisiana began developing their own plans to fend off the encroaching oil slick.

  • In Plaquemines, parish president Billy Nungesser moved forward Sunday with a plan to set up eleven staging areas across the parish’s inner coastline for deploying containment booms.
  • Due north of Plaquemines in St. Bernard Parish, parish officials oversaw a flotilla of 20 fishing boats that ventured into rough waters during the weekend to begin laying booms.
  • In St. Tammany Parish, parish president Kevin Davis helped find 7,500 feet of containment boom to stretch across the water passes that connect Lake Pontchartrain to the Gulf of Mexico. Forecasts over the weekend predicted that oil from the spill could enter the lake, which lies directly above New Orleans.

IN PICTURES: Louisiana oil spill

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