Early cleanup efforts of gulf oil spill marred by communication woes, scammers

As BP reduces the size of the "vessels of opportunity" program, fishermen who work in more remote areas are expressing concern about oil they have recently spotted in places where boats have not been deployed.
By Kimberly Kindy
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, August 14, 2010

PASCAGOULA, MISS. -- Johnny Ray Harris hunted for oil in the gulf near his home for 45 days straight, radioing in coordinates to cleanup crews when he spotted large, inky patches floating in the choppy waters.

"I would call it in, but no one ever came. Not once," Harris said, sitting on his 73-foot-long shrimp boat beside a box filled with unused rubber boots, gloves and coveralls. "What a waste."

Harris is a part of BP's Vessels of Opportunity program that promised to turn out-of-work fishermen into a powerful task force, skimming and scooping up oil before it reached the shores of Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana and Florida. At its peak, the program dispatched 3,200 boats at an average cost of $2,000 a day. In recent weeks, with a successful capping operation containing the spewing well, the oil company has scaled back to about 1,400 vessels.

Fishermen involved in the program and the company that runs it both say the effort -- costing $450 million so far -- has been fraught with problems. Much of the money doled out by BP probably went to opportunists rather than to commercial fishermen and charter boat operators whose livelihoods were disrupted by the spill. Harris and dozens of other fishermen said in interviews with The Washington Post that the amateur effort, which included laying and maintaining boom, failed to prevent oil from reaching the beaches, marshes and islands near their homes.

BP officials acknowledged that payments as high as $100,000 might have gone to recreational boat owners and others who enrolled multiple boats in the program and quickly seized an opportunity to cash in. But the officials said that it took time to identify problems and make needed reforms. "When a response of this size gets pulled together that quickly, things fall through the cracks," BP spokesman George Gigicos said.

Boat sales spiked in states around the gulf. And even though fishing was banned in as much as 40 percent of the water, officials saw a double-digit rise in demand for fishing licenses in three gulf states in April through July over last year's totals, according to data analysis done for The Post by wildlife officials in the four affected states. In Alabama, license sales shot up 66 percent; in Mississippi, they rose 30 percent; and in Louisiana, they went up 13 percent.

In late June, more than two months into the program, BP began asking participants for proof that their licenses had been issued before the oil spill, company officials said. The company also started a rotation system in mid-July that officials said they hope will pull in fishermen who have been passed by.

"I've been waiting by the phone for three months. I've heard nothing. I'm still not in," said Jerry Walker, who fishes for kingfish and red snapper in Louisiana. "I've been a fisherman for 40 years. I make 100 percent of my living from fishing. These guys out on the water, I've never seen any of them before in my life."

Gigicos said: "It did take some time to weed out the recreational vessels and the out-of town-vessels. It wasn't perfect at first." He added, "But for a while, our motto was 'All hands on deck.' We needed everyone we could get out there."

Fishermen and harbor chiefs describe the program's early days as chaotic and unproductive. Coast Guard planes flew overhead and spotted oil, but their crews were unable to communicate with the rag-tag bands floating beneath them. Repeatedly, boat owners in the program said in interviews that they thought they were part of a "show."

"The entire task force was on different radio frequencies," said Michael White, harbor chief in Long Beach, Miss. "I had to surf through 15 channels to find someone. From a distance, it looked good to have all those boats out there, but it was a mess."

At the height of the program, participants thought their boats would be equipped to skim oil from the surface of the gulf waters. Retired Coast Guard Adm. Thad Allen, who is coordinating the oil spill response, said in a June 11 news briefing that BP and the Coast Guard wanted to get "the skimming equipment in the hands of the vessels of opportunity out there."

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