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I worked the night shift to clean up the oil spill

Editor's note: St. Petersburg resident Christopher Klug spent part of the summer working as a foreman on a crew cleaning up the BP spill on the beaches near Pensacola. Here is his firsthand report.

"I need five volunteers to load supplies and water at the staging area. Everyone else stay on the bus!" The sharp command shatters the silence and jars awake the napping workers as the charter bus winds its way through Pensacola Beach.

From the front of the bus, Jen Superdock, a diminutive ponytailed young woman in a white hard hat, gazes impassively through wraparound sunglasses at her charges — 40 men and women of various backgrounds, ages and ethnicities, now identically garbed as an informal army in reflective vests, safety glasses and work boots. The usual hands go up, and she is pleased and nods.

The volunteers charge off the bus and begin to load cases of bottled water, Gatorade, ice, plastic rolls, shovels, rakes and other implements of reconstruction. One by one the foremen report to Jen their shortages and missing items.

"They're out of latex gloves, and will only give us 12 pairs of Nitrile, those heavy black rubber ones. They only gave us one roll of duct tape." Out flips Jen's Blackberry.

"Back on the bus! Lou-Lou will bring us the rest on the beach." The bus eases out of the staging area and heads back to the other end of the island, where large amounts of oil have been reported. It will be a bit like cleaning the world's largest cat box.

The night crews work from 5 p.m. until 6 a.m., 13-hour shifts, seven days a week. The lure of steady work and more than 40 hours of overtime keeps them on the job even if they're sick and tired. All have taken the 40-hour HAZWOPER (Hazardous Waste Operations and Emergency Response) training required by OSHA, and all have been through BP's training as well. All have taken drug tests and physicals, and supposedly passed background checks.

The crews work until they drop — the only way to get a day off is a doctor's note or to fall out with heat exhaustion on the beach.

The bus glides to a stop in front of Casino Beach and disgorges its contents of fluorescent workers and supplies. Foremen stand at the exit and bark, "Safety glasses on! Everyone knows their team. Assemble by your team's supplies and stand by." We all grab something from the mountainous pile and begin our long trek up the beach.

Immediately after the Deepwater Horizon rig blew up and sank, BP began to mobilize cleanup contractors. Ads promising high pay for workers popped up seemingly everywhere. As a grad student I needed a summer job, and helping to clean up a threat to Florida's beaches seemed appropriate and noble.

I scanned Craigslist job offerings in the locations affected by the spill, and determined that the qualifications were the hazardous materials handling class and a strong back. I had the advantage of being able to pay for the course and take it online, completing it in a few days. I was ready.

I applied to every prospective employer, and heard nothing for days. What was I doing wrong? My local veterans services rep suggested rewriting my resume, paring it down. I eliminated all traces of middle age, and talked up my supervisory experience. Most of the local ads seeking oil spill workers were just "making a list" in case of a deluge of oil on the local beaches.

I responded to ads in Tampa, Panama City, Pensacola, Mobile and New Orleans and even drove to a job fair in Panama City. No luck.

Back in Pinellas and hoping for a break, I loaded my clothes and work boots in my sedan and headed up U.S. 19 to Pensacola. I arrived and rented a room at America's Best Motel where the parking lot was full of white pickups with license plates from Louisiana and Texas. The next morning I drove in pouring rain to an old used car lot on West Navy Boulevard where at least two contractors shared an office. One was not hiring that day, but RCI from Slidell, La., was. And after a brief interview and mountains of application paperwork I was hired to supervise a crew of 10 to 15 cleanup workers at the rate of $15 per hour and $75 a day for expenses. I was ecstatic.

I drove to Orange Beach, Ala., later that day for BP's training, an hour lecture specific to the hazards of spilled oil. BP printed our ID cards on the spot, and I was ready to start work that night.

Chickenfeet and sweat

I am a foreman, far older than most of these kids. No way are they going to beat me to the job site. I set a brisk pace with a case of water on my shoulder and my clipboard in my other hand. The straggly line of fluorescent vests trudges nearly a mile down the beach, fighting deep sand and struggling with equipment.

I arrive winded and heart pounding at the job site, and instruct one half of our team to set up camp while the other half suits up in PPE, or Personal Protective Equipment.

Even though we are working the night shift, we are required to erect a canopy in the rest area of camp. The workers quickly lay out plastic sheeting to define the decontamination zone and set up our two folding chairs to assist with donning the PPE.

It's still hot, and sweat runs down our faces as we struggle into yellow rubber booties called "chickenfeet" and Tyvek coveralls. A pair of latex gloves followed by heavy black Nitrile gloves completes the ensemble.

I hand out red LED headlights, checking off names on my clipboard. Our coolers have not arrived, so water and Gatorade bottles swim in big plastic bags filled with ice. "Team Two, head out!" Ten rubber- and plastic-encased workers head to the tideline and begin to rake tar balls and oily seaweed into piles.

They work in groups of two or three, raking and shoveling tar and sand into plastic bags. The working team transfers the bags to the decontamination area, and a few workers begin to spin them and tape them closed. The bags of "decon" will be double-bagged and duct-taped shut before beginning their journey to wherever it is they eventually wind up.

Thirty minutes later, Team One heads to the tideline and Team Two surrenders its tools and trudges back up to the decon area. The teams work 30 minutes, and rest 30. Rest is a strange term, since they must either remove all of their PPE to go into the canopy area with coolers of cold drinks, or remain in the decon area, sprawled in the sand. To remove the PPE required at least 10 minutes and too much effort. Most choose the sand.

By 9:30 p.m. it's dark out, and the headlamps of the crews look like bright red fireflies bobbing and weaving on the tideline. Red light doesn't scare turtles, which are supposed to be making their way to the beach to lay eggs. We are assured of this by our Turtle Lady, a charming woman who prowls the beach all night for the Fish and Wildlife Service. She hasn't seen a turtle yet, but she's ready to assist. A well-meaning soul, I ask, "How do they remove oil from turtle eggs?" She ponders this. She has no answer.

The full moon rises, and a column of yellow light skips across the waves. By midnight the haze from evaporation is blotting out the horizon, and the humidity skyrockets. The crews work slower now, and lunch is the topic. The food is running late tonight, and our box lunches from Subway won't be at the bus until 2 a.m.

A casualty on the beach

By 1, we have our first casualty. One worker has been sleeping on his break, actually falling off the cooler he was sitting on twice. He leans on his shovel and dozes, while his team works around him. I repeatedly have to wake him up to go back to work, and draw Jen's attention to him.

She tells me to keep an eye on him, and that Lou-Lou (Jerrod LeLeaux) will terminate him in the morning. Other workers that become slothful are not so fortunate, and five more will be sent back to the bus mid-shift the next night. With thousands of applicants, there's no room for the sick or the slow.

The moon begins to set. A steady stream of fireflies trickles back and forth to the portable toilets, some 1,500 yards distant. OSHA requires us to walk in twos at night on the beach.

I get to know something of my crew. One of my most dedicated workers is Larry Kendricks, a gregarious and successful Pensacola charter fishing boat captain who is trying to stop the oil from ruining his livelihood by single-handedly cleaning the entire beach.

I have in my charge a gregarious boyfriend-girlfriend team of 20-somethings from Pensacola, a few young men and women from the more desperate neighborhoods, and a young female student from Alaska, working on her degree at the local university. All but two are from Florida.

No one here has ever worked an oil spill before, and our management team with the exception of Lou-Lou has just a few days more experience than the newest worker. Lou-Lou has the hesitant spryness and wiry toughness of a man who has worked hard all his life and has been in the oil business for decades.

We see him little, but keep an eye out for his "Gator," a small four-wheel-drive utility vehicle suitable for sand. The other foreman has been on the job just a few days longer than I. Charles confides that it's not rocket science, and that I should have a good grasp by my third night. He's right.

845 bags of goop

It's 4:30, and we start to wind it up for the night. Everyone is exhausted from the heat and humidity, the constant slogging though deep sand. Our pile of bags has grown to 845, and we pitch them onto the back of Lou-Lou's Gator. He makes several trips to the parking lot where these bags are loaded onto a trailer for transport.

We strike our camp, and struggle back up the beach to the bus with our equipment. It seems there's more gear than when we started out, how is that possible? As workers board the bus, I collect the headlamps and check them off the list. The sleepy worker has his BP badge pulled by Charles, and the big man loudly protests that he's the hardest working member of the crew.

Turns out he's very sick, sleeping in his car and the rumor is that he's just finished a 10-year stretch in prison for killing a supervisor in a rage. Charles is more than a trifle nervous about having to fire the man and then ride on a bus with him for an hour. We foremen keep a watchful eye on him, and I'm silently thankful this task fell to Charles and not to me.

As we set off for the staging area to unload, conversation drops to a murmur; snores permeate the air and workers who probably don't know each other's names democratically rest their heads on each other in slumber. A pungent odor permeates the bus, an acrid combination of overflowing bus toilet and perspiration. The gear is unloaded by the same people who loaded it, and the bus turns for the Port.

I arrive at my motel about 7:30 a.m. and cannot sleep. I'm just too tired and too numb. In just a few hours, I will be back at the Port, waiting to board the bus and do it all again.

When it's all over, I believe I have made a small, personal effort to preserve my Florida. So many make excuses and wistfully cite the futility or politics of the project. But I have seen the oil and fought it on the beaches. The tar balls and mats will continue to wash ashore for years after I have returned to my studies, and I admire and value the efforts of all those like Jen, Lou-Lou and Captain Larry who doggedly labor to keep the weathered crude from our doorstep, and to try to protect our Florida environment and way of life.

Christopher Klug, 55, is a graduate student at the University of South Florida St. Petersburg, seeking an advanced degree in Florida Studies. Returning to his home state after a brief residency in Alabama, he has made Florida's drinking water and environmental issues the focus of his studies. He is married to Mary Klug and lives in St. Petersburg.

I worked the night shift to clean up the oil spill 08/07/10 [Last modified: Thursday, August 5, 2010 7:35pm]

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