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Oil slick deepens gloom along Louisiana coast

SHELL BEACH, La.

Ball-capped fishermen with sunburned faces and folded arms stared up at the man in the blue jumpsuit, waiting for instructions on how they can save their waters.

"If it looks like we're doing it a little bit slow, forgive us for it," shouted BP oil company representative Peter Nowobilski from atop a red truck bed.

Eleven days ago, none of these locals knew they would be standing here Saturday under windy, overcast skies, frustrated and taking direction from an industry with a product that threatens their livelihood.

This is usually the time of year when the high winds push bountiful shrimp, fish and oysters toward the waiting nets of fishermen and oyster farmers, generating a hefty portion of the state's $3 billion seafood industry.

But ever since the April 20 oil rig explosion in the gulf, these gusts have been spelling out certain destruction for this community, pushing toward its shores some of the 210,000 gallons of oil gushing from the oil well each day.

On Saturday, as the ever-growing oil slick measuring at least 3,850 square miles encroached on their fishing territory, about 400 terrified residents enrolled in hazardous materials training so that they could take their boats to the sea to stop it.

"We're not happy about it," mumbled Marty Nunez, a tanned shrimp-buyer who, like many here, stood around for hours to have a chance at the $36 to $46 per hour jobs laying booms —floating barriers — in the water to prevent the crude's movement.

Waiting for the oil to come ashore Saturday felt like waiting for a hurricane.

Only worse.

No one knows when the oil river will stop flowing. And if it's as bad as projected, it could affect the seafood industry for as long as 10 years. This area alone usually accounts for 30 to 40 percent of the state's oyster production.

A place like Shell Beach in St. Bernard Parish could become a ghost town. Hurricane Katrina destroyed boats and homes five years ago, but the seas still produced the economic driver these folks needed to keep going.

"After Katrina, we just had to rebuild our lives — not nature," said Glenn Sanchez, 55, a fisherman who runs nearby Breton Sound Marina, a shell-covered plot of land where fishermen usually come for fuel before heading to sea.

By late afternoon, the marina became the staging area for local fishermen to load their boats with thousands of feet of the orange booms.

Pickup trucks pulled flatbeds piled with the orange tubes to the water's edge, where workers from BP contractor OMI Oil fed the long ribbons onto boats usually covered with oyster sacks.

Boats named Lady Susan II, Mr. Celestino, Capt. Shane II and Cajun Runner awaited their turn.

The parish bureaucrat had been clear. If they wanted the job, they had to follow safety regulations, including a requirement for orange life vests and steel-toed boots that sent many of them scrambling to the store.

BP should be providing that, one mumbled.

All day, they had been battling mixed feelings about going to work for BP. Parish officials had to dispel rumors that signing on to contract with the company could require them to waive their rights to sue BP later.

Earlier in the day, at a high school almost three hours south in the coastal town of Boothsville, other fishermen arrived to sign up for the same kind of work, only to learn BP had stopped assigning contracts to local fishermen and were only taking volunteers.

"Hell no!" yelled Jesse Rousset, a 22-year-old crabber and shrimper from Slidell who said he has been fishing since he could walk. "We want to make some money."

Most of the fishing areas here were closed on Friday, leaving these guys eager to find something — anything — to replace their lost income.

But while laying boom sounded like a good idea, towering swells of the gulf made them increasingly ineffective on Saturday as the oil-topped water simply spilled over them.

"I don't even think it's going to work," said Nunez, shaking his head even as he prepared to head out today to lay the booms. "It's too much oil."

Nunez, who lives in nearby in Poydras, came to Shell Island with his son, Marty Nunez Jr.

The younger Nunez, 19, said he had always planned on following his father into the family business, selling shrimp and running a sandwich and convenience store on Shell Beach.

"That's what I planned," he said, putting his emphasis on the past tense. "Mom's telling me to go back to school."

The elder Nunez got a price list from the Alabama shrimp processing plant he sells to on Friday. Last year this time, 40 to 50 count shrimp went for 70 cents a pound, he said. Now, they're expecting it to be $1.45.

It's a losing proposition for Nunez, who is still getting on his feet from Hurricane Katrina. The storm wiped out his business, Amigo Ice Co., and his family-run store. He expected the store to reopen in a matter of weeks.

Until this.

The BP replacement work is nice, but it doesn't look like it will pull in nearly enough to help cover the debt he's already in.

"We care about our marsh," Nunez said, reflecting on the new job ahead. "But I just think it's unstoppable. I hope I'm wrong."

Rebecca Catalanello can be reached at (727) 893-8707 or rcatalanello@sptimes.com.

Oil slick deepens gloom along Louisiana coast 05/01/10 [Last modified: Monday, May 3, 2010 4:54pm]
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