REPLY TO THREAD
'I was lucky if I made $1,000 a month before the spill. Now BP pay me $1,200 a day': Fishermen make most of Gulf oil disaster
[link to www.dailymail.co.uk]
No one can deny that the BP oil spill has devastated some wildlife. But for a dying fishing industry, ambulance-chasing lawyers, and an ‘anti-colonial’ President, it is a golden opportunity... and TV crews moan about how hard it is to get oil footage that ‘looks good’
High winds and rain squalls buffet me as I walk along the beach on the remote Louisiana barrier island which is on the front line of the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.
At first glance, Grand Isle, 50 miles to the north-west of the wrecked rig, appears remarkably unscathed by the gushing oil. Snaking the fragile sands for seven miles, a foot-high vinyl boom has succeeded in holding back the brown sludge.
But the 500 fishermen and their families who live on the island are all too aware that they are under terrible threat from what the Obama administration has called ‘the biggest environmental’ catastrophe in US history.
Just eight miles away from here, on an unpopulated island separated from Grand Isle by a narrow strait, wildlife experts have rescued 35 brown pelicans that were trapped in eddying oil that managed to penetrate the emergency booms.
The heartbreaking images will only serve to increase the anger directed at BP over its handling of the crisis. But my visit to the island has raised a series of difficult questions about the impact of the horrifying underwater leak on the people and natural environment of Grand Isle.
President Barack Obama furiously accused BP in his televised address of ‘imperilling an entire way of life and an entire region for potentially years’. In his sharpest attack on the oil giant’s handling of the crisis, he suggested it is ignoring the fishermen.
For generations, they have depended on shrimp for their livelihood. But over a third of the fishing grounds around the island have been closed by the spill.
He said: ‘My understanding is that BP has contracted for $50 million worth of TV advertising to manage their image. In addition, there are reports that BP will be paying $10.5 billion in dividend payments this quarter.
‘Now, I don’t have a problem with BP fulfilling its legal obligations. But I want BP to be clear, they’ve got moral and legal obligations here in the Gulf for the damage that has been done.
‘And what I don’t want to hear is, when they’re spending that kind of money on their shareholders and spending that kind of money on TV advertising, they’re nickel-and-diming fishermen or small businesses here in the Gulf who are having a hard time.’
And local politicians have stepped up the war of words, predicting that, when the seas reopen, there will be nothing alive to catch.
‘Ain’t a bird, ain’t a bug, nothing,’ proclaimed Billy Nungesser, a Republican multi-millionaire who governs a powerful council in southern Louisiana, on a series of colourful television interviews and postings on YouTube.
The truth, inevitably, is far more complicated. When the weather calms down sufficiently for a boat to take me and a photographer to the swamps where the pelicans were found, most of the oil has been swept back out to sea by the currents.
Gulls swoop over our heads, porpoises play in the water and a heron with dazzlingly clean white plumage is perched on a bush.
Dispersant chemicals have broken up much of the surface oil slick into orange droplets and their exposure to the elements is believed to have dispersed the toxic components of crude oil of the most immediate concern to scientists.
The experts are now more worried about the discovery of plumes of oil that are threatening coral reefs near the ocean floor.
Understandably, many locals have chosen to drown their sorrows. At a popular bar, the Vu-Doo Lounge, fishermen ply me with riches-to-rags stories. ‘I was making $100,000 a year. Now I’m making nothing,’ I was told by Tim Cheramie, who was buying rounds of Bud Lite for a group of friends.
The large amounts of beer being consumed made it clear, however, that the Lounge’s patrons still had some source of income.
Questioned more closely, one boat captain, Dodd ‘Milk’ Champagne, blurted: ‘Those of us with bigger boats are still shrimping because we can go further out to sea, beyond the closed area.’ His vessel, Milky Way, was due to depart the next morning for a ten-day expedition.
The vessel will cover more miles, devouring extra fuel, so he is entitled to collect compensation from BP on a monthly basis, and he has just received his first cheque, for $5,000.
His three deckhands also have each submitted claims – for $2,500 each – to compensate for ‘lost earnings’.
Hundreds of fishermen with smaller boats have converted them into oil-skimming vessels, which lower absorbent pads, resembling old-fashioned draught stoppers, into the ocean to scoop out the contaminants.
A BP source says the company is paying them between $1,200 and $3,000 a day, in addition to which they are reimbursed for their meals and fuel. To the disgraced oil company, desperate to retrieve its reputation, this undoubtedly seems worthwhile.
After another beer, however, one of the captains at the Lounge mordantly confided to me that his business lost nearly $40,000 last year.
Criticise: President Barack Obama is angry at BP over its handling of the crisis and claims it has ignored the plight of locals
Soaring fuel costs and cheap imports of shrimp from China and Thailand have driven prices to as low as 30 cents (20p) a pound and according to official estimates, more than 16 per cent of Grand Isle’s residents subsist on incomes below the poverty line.
The rotted teeth and prematurely aged faces of most of those I meet lead me to believe the real figure may be double that.
Long before the spill, the industry throughout the US states bordering the Gulf of Mexico was being driven into extinction by another factor that conveniently has gone unmentioned by the politicians: pollution.
Agricultural chemicals and fertilisers have been carried by rivers into the sea, creating a dead zone that has nothing to do with oil. It has stretched at times for as much as 6,000 square miles along the coast and is blamed for sharply decreasing catches.
‘Ma’am, I hate to say anything good about BP,’ I was told by a fisherman who asked not to be identified, because he is collecting $1,200 a day by the company to skim oil.
‘What they’ve done is a tragedy. But it was bad before the spill. I was lucky if I made $1,000 a month. After the mortgage on my house and other bills, we had maybe $120 a month left to buy food. We lived on chicken wings. We couldn’t afford to eat our own shrimp. Now BP pays me $1,200 a day.’
The economic statistics hardly exonerate the company. There have been shocking allegations of an industry-wide ‘culture of corruption,’ in which government inspectors accepted meals, tickets to sporting events and other favours.
At an official hearing into the Deep Horizon disaster, there have also been claims that cost-cutting may have contributed to the explosion in which 11 workers died.
Last week there were charges that the company’s ‘Oil Spill Response Plan’ for the Gulf, which was supposed to plan for such emergencies, was a ‘cut-and-paste job’ which plagiarised plans for – of all places – the Arctic.
‘The plan discusses the need to protect walruses, seals and sea lions – animals that do not exist in the Gulf,’ reported Newsweek Magazine. ‘A web address given for a response contractor’s equipment list goes instead to a Japanese shopping site.’
However, there seems no escaping the fact that much of the coverage playing on TV around the world is sensationalised, perhaps deliberately.
As of Friday morning, some 140 miles of Gulf coast wetlands and beaches – out of a total of nearly 1,700 miles – were contaminated.
According to the US Government, 491 dead birds, 227 dead turtles and 31 dead mammals, including dolphins, have been found in the spill zone.
It has yet to be determined how many of them were killed by oil but the count is far lower than the pictures of the suffering pelicans led many of us to fear.
I overheard a New York TV crew complaining that it took days of uncomfortable and expensive boat rides – for which the going rate is $100 an hour – before they ‘discovered enough oil’ to ‘look good’. Financially, the greatest victim of the spill undoubtedly is BP.
It has cost the firm over $1 billion to date, a figure which includes $40.2 million in payments to people in the region to make up for the money they claim they have lost.
Some workers ruefully admitted to me that they may have exaggerated.
A high school student said: ‘I’ve asked for $2,500 but I really only work for my dad.’
'Many are affected by a sudden plague of illness'
And a boat owner said: ‘I only shrimp part-time. Last year I netted $22,000. My main job is working tugs. I put in for $5,000 for me a month and $2,500 for my wife because she is my deckhand.’
A BP insider told me: ‘Obviously there is some fraud and abuse but our aim has been to move money to people as quickly as possible because there has been some very real economic damage.’ He said that independent assessors are attempting to ensure claims are genuine.
Ambulance-chasing lawyers – who work for free in return for 30 per cent of the compensation if they score a victory – are eagerly recruiting clients. Billboards have sprung up saying, ‘Oil spill hurt your business?’ and they have also snapped up catchy web domain names such as bigoilspills.com.
More than 150 cases already have been filed. One of the most publicised involves a restraining order taken out against BP by John Wunstell Jr, a 51-year-old fisherman from a town on the mainland just north of Grand Isle.
He was airlifted to hospital after he claimed he was experiencing severe headaches, nosebleeds, an upset stomach and aches. He said the symptoms overwhelmed him while he was conducting skimming operations for BP on his boat, Ramie’s Wish.
When I visited Mr Wunstell’s house, a stout lady emerged and smilingly told me his lawyer had instructed him not to comment.
Public records might seem to indicate a settlement by BP could come at a useful time – as he appears to have resorted to loans to support the struggle that life has become on Grand Isle.
Ramie’s Wish is pledged as collateral to a bank from which he received an undisclosed sum of financing. He put up a Minolta 35mm camera, a weedcutter, a stereo, a video player, a 19 in TV set, a Dell computer, a Remington 410 shotgun, an electric chainsaw, a lawn mower and a 14 carat gold medallion – among other mundane items – as collateral to another loan institution.
Lisa Louque, a 47-year-old former dishwasher at Sarah’s, a Grand Isle diner, told me that she had to spend a day and a half in hospital after a walk on the beach made her dizzy and disorientated. She said she has had to quit her job and is considering suing BP.
‘I got sick after I picked up a piece of driftwood with oil on it,’ she said. ‘BP gave me $1,000 last month for lost wages but I’m behind in my rent. I’ve no cash. I’m not sure I will ever be able to work again. I just get weak, weak, weak.’
Another young worker at the diner cackled with laughter when I asked her about the plague of illness which suddenly seems to be affecting so many on Grand Isle.
She says she attributes it to the ‘beer money’ being handed out by BP. ‘A six-pack before breakfast will make you feel real weak,’ she said.
Emerging from the kitchen, the diner’s owner, Miss Sarah – as she is fondly known locally – frowned at the giggling girl.
‘I will say I am surprised that Lisa got ill,’ she said. ‘But I wouldn’t want BP to think people on Grand Isle want any money that’s not owed to them.
‘I’ve lost business myself from sports fishermen who’d normally be here. This is the start of our high season. But I won’t be suing as long as BP does what they’ve promised and compensates everyone fairly.’
Whether or not the unique ecology of this island can be saved, she says, she is determined to keep its good name.
BP boss’s wife in hate mail ordeal
The wife of BP chief executive Tony Hayward says she has received hate mail about the oil spill disaster.
Maureen Hayward said some ‘not very nice’ letters had come through the door, including some from the environmental campaign group Greenpeace.
Mrs Hayward said: ‘Members of my family have had nasty phone calls and we have also had mail from groups – including not very nice letters from Greenpeace.’
Mrs Hayward said that the material had made her and her two children feel ‘rather uncomfortable’ at their home near Sevenoaks, Kent.
Greenpeace categorically denied ever having sent any form of communication to the Hayward family home.
A spokesman said: ‘We have never written to or emailed Mrs Hayward or her husband at home. It is not something we would ever do.’
Kent police and BP declined to comment.
Pictures (click to insert)
| | Next Page >>|