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Oil spill cleanup crews' work stirred controversy, too

Cleanup crews remove oil that washed ashore on Pensacola Beach in June. Cleanup of beaches in the Panhandle has drawn complaints about crews not working, led to the arrest of crew members and produced coordination problems.

EDMUND D. FOUNTAIN | Times

Cleanup crews remove oil that washed ashore on Pensacola Beach in June. Cleanup of beaches in the Panhandle has drawn complaints about crews not working, led to the arrest of crew members and produced coordination problems.

They work in the sun for 10 minutes, then sit in the shade for 50, or they put in 14 hours at night when no one sees them working at all. They wear hard hats and steel-toed boots to trudge along the beach scooping up dime-sized tar balls, and a day later they have to do it again.

And only rarely have they been in the right place at the right time.

The crews BP deployed to clean up its oil spill from Florida's coastline have been on the job for more than 100 days. Everywhere they have gone, their work has stirred nearly as much controversy as the Deepwater Horizon spill itself.

There have been complaints about male workers leering at women on the beach. Some people have thrown things at them. Others complained about seeing them sitting around and doing nothing.

"Word came down from BP: Take your breaks in a method that doesn't look like you're lying down," said Christopher Klug, 55, a University of South Florida graduate student who supervised a cleanup crew on Pensacola Beach.

The work, he said, was "a bit like cleaning the world's largest cat box." They used rakes and shovels — not exactly the most efficient way to scrape off hundreds of miles of sand, he said.

Klug said he had to quit after a week because the odor made him sick, and working such long hours gave him no time to recover. Still, he made $15 an hour plus time and a half for any hours over 40 and a $75 per diem — for a total of $1,300 — filling up bag after bag with the residue washed ashore.

Workers such as Klug have sent more than 35,000 tons of oily waste to landfills around the gulf region so far, according to BP and the Environmental Protection Agency. That includes not just tar balls scooped off the beach but also oily debris and seaweed, and the workers' own oiled protective gear.

Despite BP's pledge to employ as many local residents as possible, cleanup crew members came from all over the South. Some weren't American citizens.

"Some of them didn't have green cards," said Santa Rosa County Commission Chairman Gordon Goodin. That caused problems when they crossed onto Eglin Air Force Base, he said.

In Bay County, deputies arrested 11 cleanup crew members as illegal immigrants. The 11 were citizens of Nicaragua, Honduras, Ecuador and Bolivia using stolen Social Security numbers, deputies said.

In July, a cleanup crew member from Largo, 28-year-old Jeremiah J. Wynn, was charged in Panama City Beach with robbing two people at gunpoint behind a beachfront condominium. He took $3 and a Samsung cell phone, police said.

BP vice president Ray Dempsey said he had been disappointed to hear about such incidents. But he pointed out that the company had, in less than three months, mobilized an army of 47,000 people across the Gulf Coast to respond to one of the nation's worst environmental disasters.

Overall, he said, "I think they've done a good job."

Given that thousands of people showed up in the Panhandle to clean up the beaches, Commissioner Goodin said it shouldn't be a surprise there were a few bad apples in the bunch. And all in all, he said, the crews left the beaches looking cleaner than any time in the past 15 years.

Given their long hours and the hot, heavy outfits the crews had to wear, the commissioner said, "I wouldn't do that work for twice the money."

Some of the crew members wanted to do more than they were allowed. Because of concerns about turtle nesting, the crews cleaning up Gulf Islands National Seashore could scrape oily sand off only the surface of the beach, said Barbara Dougan of the National Park Service.

"They were complaining that they didn't get to do enough," she said.

A lot of beachgoers assumed the crews worked for local government agencies, and so the complaints went to those agencies, said Capt. Mike Barker of the Walton County Sheriff's Office, who's in charge of emergency management there.

"But the contractors were told not to deal with the local government people," he said. "They deal only with BP."

Even getting a list of which contractors might be working in the area could be difficult. Barker said the list he saw changed every day, making it hard to keep track. One list of contractors sent last week to Escambia County by the Coast Guard and BP included not just private companies, but also state agencies and even the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the Air Force.

In some cases, the contractor that BP hired to clean a particular area then hired a subcontractor that hired another sub to do the work. The confusion over who reports to whom led to coordination problems.

"Last month we had a lot of product washing ashore, and we only had 30 to 50 workers," Barker said. "Then in recent weeks we've had very little oil washing in, and we've had 1,600 to 2,000 people on the beach."

That was a common problem. "I don't think they were ever where we thought we needed them," said Escambia County Commission Chairman Grover Robinson IV. "They had people ready, but they didn't put people into your sector until you reported that you had heavy oil coming in."

Barker said he heard repeated complaints about the crews running their all-terrain vehicles through dunes or in other areas they were supposed to avoid. That echoes complaints from the American Bird Conservancy about cleanup workers in Louisiana wrecking nesting areas for least terns, leaving nothing but broken eggshells behind.

Now, with the Deepwater Horizon gusher capped and a relief well nearly done, BP's new CEO has announced it's time for a "scale-back" in cleaning up the spill, and Florida officials say it's time to "right-size" the oil spill response.

In Florida, that means pulling out booms that provide no protection against tar balls as well as cutting back the hours and shifts for coastal cleanup crews — even though tar is likely to continue washing ashore in the Panhandle for months. BP officials say, however, they will keep sending people out to clean up the oil as long as it keeps showing up.

Like Klug, Barker questioned the efficiency of sending thousands of cleanup workers to the beach to spend hours poking around with shovels and rakes, rather than using specialized machines that came in only recently.

"When there's a lot of product on the beach, you have to wonder about the effectiveness of workers picking everything up one at a time," Barker said. "Was it a good way to do it? No."

Times staff researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report.

Oil spill cleanup crews' work stirred controversy, too 08/01/10 [Last modified: Tuesday, August 10, 2010 9:33am]

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