Contract workers collect surface oil approximately four miles
offshore of Okaloosa Island, Fla., on June 25. Cortez boat
captain Charlotte Huntley assisted in the efforts earlier this month.
PHOTO/ U.S. COAST GUARD PETTY OFFICER 3RD CLASS COLIN WHITE
CORTEZ – The mother dolphin pushed her baby up through the oil to help it get a breath of air, but the baby was already dead.
The memory sticks with Cortez boat captain Charlotte Huntley like oil sticks to a mangrove.
One of about 20 Cortezians who answered the call to help Louisiana fishermen clean up the Gulf of Mexico after the still-gushing Deepwater Horizon oil spill began on April 20, Huntley spent five emotional weeks on the front lines.
“You go by the bird islands and you’re hearing those baby pelicans screaming for their mother, and she’s not coming back. It’s the most gut wrenching, heart wrenching thing...” she said, her voice trailing off. “I was on the phone crying to Johnny every night.”
Huntley and Johnny Banyas, of Cortez Bait and Seafood in Cortez, are rigging another boat to head to Louisiana; Huntley left the Booby Trap and the Miss Tampa in the care of her brother and another boat captain to continue oil recovery efforts there.
To workers in the oily Gulf, things look different than they do to those watching on TV, she said, citing problems with the way wildlife is handled, the methods used for oil spill containment and the questionable way the Vessel of Opportunity Program is being operated.
British Petroleum’s Vessel of Opportunity Program is heavily publicized among fishermen, whose nautical skills easily translate from fishing to laying plastic boom to contain liquid oil.
But it’s not easy getting into the program, Huntley said. Small boats without enough horsepower to pull booms are being hired. Boats from Michigan and Ohio are being hired before boats from Louisiana, where livelihoods have been disrupted. And several layers of bureaucracy have sprung up, with each one taking a cut of the paycheck, she said.
“I’m a fourth-tier contractor,” she said, with three other subcontractors above her as her bosses, having purchased and resold “tickets” from BP’s program.
By the time the advertised $1,200 per boat per day trickles down to the boat owner, she’s earning $400, she said, but most fishermen hired for the program aren’t complaining because they can’t fish with a third of the Gulf closed.
“We’re unaware of that,” BP spokesman John Curry said, adding that boats are paid between $1,200 and $3,000 based on their size, and crew members are paid $25 per hour.
“We created the program to help clean up the oil and provide some level of compensation for those who have been impacted. We would need to look into that.”
Huntley is having trouble getting a third, 44-foot-long boat from Cortez accepted to the program because all the tickets have been sold, she said.
“They’re not accepting the right boats for the job,” she said. “They get go-fast boats that couldn’t haul any boom.”
Other things bothered her, too. While she saw about 50 Louisiana shrimp boats in the program, others were from Michigan and Ohio, while Gulf coast boat captains remained jobless.
She questioned why the absorbent boom is being rented, not sold.
She tried to make a suggestion after watching workers use cane poles to string boom on, and seeing the boom wash ashore the next day, allowing the oil into the marshland.
“Why not use rebar instead of bamboo?” she asked them.
“They said it was an environmental issue,” Huntley laughed scornfully. “You’re a peon when you’re out there.”
“We’re trying to enlist people’s assistance,” Curry said. “There’s a whole program set up for it, including a call center. We’re open for suggestions.”
A Gulf apart
It’s a shock to see the scene at ground zero in Grand Isle, La., for the first time, Huntley said.
“It’s horrible,” she said, searching for words. “There’s so much oil in the water.”
The BP executives she ferried to the spill site were disgusted, she said. “They would say, ‘Oh my God, we’re not doing enough.’ ”
Wearing a long-sleeved shirt, jeans, a life preserver and boots for 12 hours a day for hot days on end, Huntley deployed boom onto beaches for later installation in the water and ran a supply boat, taking crew, supplies, gas and BP executives to “dirty” boats that could not come into port because of oil residue.
When oil hit the Booby Trap, she had to go to a decontamination barge before returning to port, which powerwashed the boat and damaged the Fiberglas.
“My purple crab boat was slap covered in oil,” she said, so she switched to absorbent pads and a citrus-based cleanser. Oil got in the engines of some of the boats.
“If it’s on the surface, you can avoid it. But once it’s in your intake, the engine shuts down,” she said. “Shrimpers were crying.”
BP has promised to pay for the damage.
One of her worst frustrations was not being allowed to touch wildlife as a BP subcontractor, she said. Subs must call wildlife officials, who are overwhelmed with calls and can’t respond.
Wildlife death estimates are vastly underreported, she said, accounting only for animals that wash up on shore, not the ones in the Gulf that no one will ever see.
As of Friday, 1,074 dead birds, 417 dead sea turtles and 48 dead dolphins and manatees were reported, with more than 900 injured animals collected for treatment.
As in many disasters, the area is becoming somewhat lawless, she said. After hearing about violent crimes being committed, Huntley returned home to Cortez, with mixed feelings.
She was glad to be able to help the skimming boats keep going, she said, but she couldn’t help making comparisons and a grim prediction.
“I’m looking at Barataria Pass (La.) and I said, ‘This is going to come to Longboat Pass,’ ” she said. Hoping for the best “…is like sitting in the bathtub and saying the hot water isn’t going to come past your feet.”