Gulf oil spill - help is being ignored

By Tom Breen

NEW ORLEANS - BP and the Obama administration face mounting complaints that they are ignoring foreign offers of equipment and making little use of the fishing boats and volunteers available to help clean up what may now be the biggest spill ever in the Gulf of Mexico.

The Coast Guard said there have been 107 offers of help from 44 nations, ranging from technical advice to skimmer boats and booms. But many of those offers are weeks old, and only a small number have been accepted, with the vast majority still under review, according to a list kept by the State Department.

And in recent days and weeks, for reasons British oil giant BP has never explained, many fishing boats hired for the cleanup have done a lot of waiting around.

A report prepared by investigators with the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform for Republican Rep. Darrell Issa detailed one case in which the Dutch government offered on April 30 to provide four oil skimmers that collectively could process more than 23 million litres of oily water a day. It took seven weeks for the US to approve the offer.

White House spokesman Robert Gibbs scorned the idea that "somehow it took the command 70 days to accept international help."

"That is a myth," he declared, "that has been debunked literally hundreds of times."

He said 24 foreign vessels were operating in the Gulf before this week. He did not specifically address the Dutch vessels.

The help is needed. Based on some government estimates, more 530 million litres of crude have now spewed from the bottom of the sea since the April 20 explosion that killed 11 workers on the Deepwater Horizon oil platform, eclipsing the 1979-80 disaster off Mexico that had long stood as the worst in the Gulf.

Still, more than 2,000 boats have signed up for oil-spill duty under BP's Vessel of Opportunity program. The company pays boat captains and their crews a flat fee based on the size of the vessel, ranging from US$1,200 to $3,000 a day, plus a $200 fee for each crew member who works an eight-hour day.

Rocky Ditcharo, a shrimp dock owner in Buras, Louisiana, said many fishermen hired by BP have told him that they often park their boats on the shore while they wait for word on where to go.

"They just wait because there's no direction," Ditcharo said. He said he believes BP has hired many boat captains "to show numbers."

"But they're really not doing anything," he added. He also said he suspects the company is hiring out-of-work fishermen to placate them with paychecks.

Chris Mehlig, a fisherman from Louisiana's St. Bernard Parish, said he is getting eight days of work a month, laying down containment boom, running supplies to other boats or simply being on call dockside in case he is needed. "I wish I had more days than that, but that's the way things are," he said.

A BP spokesman declined to comment.

Newly retired Coast Guard Admiral Thad Allen, the government's point man for the response effort, bristled at some of the accusations in Issa's report.

"I think we've been pretty transparent throughout this," Allen said at the White House. He disputed any suggestion that there aren't enough skimmers being put on the water, saying the spill area is so big that there are bound to be areas with no vessels.

The Coast Guard said there are roughly 550 skimmers working in the Gulf, spread out among four states, but stormy weather in recent days has kept the many of the vessels from working.

BP said later on Friday, local time, that it had some oil skimmers back out on the seas off the coasts of Alabama and Louisiana after rough conditions churned up by Hurricane Alex kept them ashore.

Keith Seilhan, BP's incident commander for Mobile, Alabama, said Friday that boats were working in limited numbers in protected waters. He says the size of the fleet will increase dramatically as sea conditions calm down.

The frustration extends to the volunteers who have offered to clean beaches and wetlands. More than 20,000 volunteers have signed up to help in Florida, Alabama and Mississippi, yet fewer than one in six has received an assignment or the training required to take part in some chores, according to BP.

Some government estimates put the amount of oil spilled at 605 million litres. That calculation was arrived at by using the rate of 9.5 million litres a day all the way back to the oil rig explosion.

The AP, relying on scientists who advised the government on flow rate, bases its estimates on a lower rate of 8 million litres a day up until June 3, when a cut to the well pipe increased flow.

By either estimate, the disaster would eclipse the Ixtoc disaster in the Gulf two decades ago and rank as the biggest offshore oil spill during peacetime. The bill spill in history happened in 1991 during the Persian Gulf War, when Iraqi forces opened valves at a terminal and dumped about 1.3 billion litres of oil.

The total in the Gulf disaster is significant because BP is likely to be fined per gallon spilled. Also, scientists say an accurate figure is needed to calculate how much oil may be hidden below the surface, doing damage to the deep-sea environment.

"It's a mind-boggling number any way you cut it," said Ed Overton, a Louisiana State University environmental studies professor. "It'll be well beyond Ixtoc by the time it's finished."

- AP

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