Gulf of Mexico oil spill brings out hundreds of volunteers

Oil company BP is paying local watermen to ferry trained workers deploying booms to help contain the massive oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.

A clean-up worker laying booms beside a fragile wetlands near the town of Venice, Louisiana on Thursday. A giant oil slick threatened economic and environmental devastation as it closed in on Louisiana's vulnerable coast, prompting the US government to declare a national disaster.

Facing a manmade catastrophe that could rival the cost of Hurricane Katrina, thousands of Louisiana residents are asking what they can do help stem an imminent tide of oil washing toward the state’s fragile wetlands.

Local radio stations and a state government web site are offering toll-free numbers for potential volunteers to call. At the Audubon Institute’s Marine Mammal and Sea Turtle Rescue Program in New Orleans, workers have been fielding dozens of calls from people who want to help save sea creatures.

But the front line of community involvement was at the Boothville-Venice School outside Venice, Louisiana. Over three hundred people packed the school’s gymnasium for a public meeting called by Parish President Billy Nungesser. Hundreds of fishermen signed up for a five hour safety class on handling hazardous materials, so they can offer their services deploying oil booms in the Gulf.

IN PICTURES: Louisiana oil spill

“We’ve been having people who want to help calling my office for days,” said Mr. Nungesser. “They want to help and don’t even ask about getting paid. They’ve got their boats, they know the depths of the water. We want to include all the people we can to help.”

David Kinnard, a community coordinator in Venice for BP, encouraged fishermen to register with the company’s Vessel of Opportunity program, which will pay local watermen to ferry trained workers who are deploying the booms. According to a BP spokesperson, the company has placed 250,000 feet of boom and has another quarter of a million feet awaiting deployments. Two thousand BP employees are working from Venice to contain the spill.

Mr. Kinnard said BP will also use local businesses as their first sources for supplies and services in their containment and cleanup efforts, an effort to help support a local economy that could otherwise be devastate by the spill.

“We’re here to help, we’re here to do what we can to make it right,” said Kinnard. “Our intention is to stage a response using this community and use local resources as much as possible.” Kinnard could not say Thursday afternoon, however, how much local fishermen would be paid for their work or when they might be hired.

After the public meeting, the school gymnasium remained filled as local workers watched a two-hour video presentation by a local community college which counts towards their hazardous materials handling certification.

“We can’t fish right now because of the oil slick,” said fishermen Sang Vo, 37, of Buras, La. “We have to pay our bills but we can’t do nothing. Shrimp, fish, crabs, when the oil come in it will all be dead.”

Ronald Billiot, a commercial fisherman who drove three hours from Houma, La., to attend the meeting, said the spill was already costing him $8,000 a day.

“This is what I do for a living and it’s all I do,” said Billiot. “Some boats work six months a year, I work year round. I’m ready to do whatever needs to be done to help out with this.”

The oil company’s presentation did little to relieve the frustration of some local residents whose lives could be upended by the spill.

“They don’t have a plan for this,” said boat captain Richard Blank. “The oil company didn’t have a plan, the state didn’t have a plan, the federal government didn’t have a plan. Now they’re not letting anyone help until they’re certified, and by the time we might get out there it’s going to be too late.”

Efforts to block the oncoming oily tide have been hampered over the past day by 30 mile-per-hour winds that have pulled booms from their anchors and sent waves crashing over their tops. Most boats working out of Venice remained in port today because of the heavy seas.

“It looks like we’re not going to stop all the oil before it gets to the beaches, so we’re setting up a second line of defense on our inland water and marshes,” said Parish President Nungesser. “If it works itself twenty miles into the wetlands that would be the worst case scenario. We have to catch it before that to prevent that.”

IN PICTURES: Louisiana oil spill


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