On Sunday, April 17, BP bought a full-page ad in the daily newspaper to reassure residents that the company hadn’t waivered from its commitment to the Gulf to cleanup the damage caused when the Deepwater Horizon rig exploded over a year ago causing over 4 million barrels of crude oil to gush into the Gulf of Mexico and onto the shores of Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and Florida.
The ads proclaimed, “We know we haven’t always been perfect, but we are working to live up to our commitments, both now and in the future.”
When IN called Capt. Mark Stewart, who owns two oyster boats and two shrimp boats based on the Mississippi coast, to ask him how BP has lived up to its commitment, the commercial fisherman laughed. “I got a $26 check yesterday from
BP, for interest or something,” said Stewart, who has only been paid 7 percent of the BP claims that he has filed.
Stewart was part of BP’s Vessels of Opportunity program, which was touted as a means of helping commercial fishing and charter boats that had been put out of work because of the BP oil disaster. He said that BP still owes him money for his VOP work.
“They sent me a denial letter on the pay for two of my men that worked nine weeks,” he said. “These men had badges and checked in every day. BP signed them in and out, but they won’t pay me the $15,000 they owe me.”
The oil giant has also refused to pay for decontaminating and repainting his boat, which BP promised to do once the VOP ended, according to Stewart. “They had us driving through the oil to break it up and sink it to the bottom, but they told us we didn’t need to be decontaminated because they didn’t see a sheen around our boats.”
According to Stewart, they refused to return his boat to its pre-VOP state because they ruled what he was claiming would have eventually worn out anyway. “When they got my boat, it was spotless,” he said. “I’ve spent $15-$20,000 getting ready for shrimp season.”
GETTING RICH OFF OF VOP
The Vessels of Opportunity program also left a sour taste with Capt. Buddy Rogers, who owns two charter boats docked at Pensacola Beach.
“Man, that’s a sore, sore subject for me,” said Rogers, who has owned and operated dive and charter boats since 1986. “When they called us to come to the first meeting about signing on, the room was so packed with people that I turned to my wife and said, ‘I don’t know any of these people.’ That was the first clue I was in trouble. I went to that meeting in the first of May, and I didn’t get hired until the middle of June.”
Even though Rogers had all his federal permits and licenses to prove that he was in the charter boat industry and was being hurt by the oil disaster, he only got to be in the program for five weeks. Others did much better.
“I’m every bit a legitimate businessman, but that Vessels of Opportunity program was a lot of good money that went to some people that didn’t deserve it,” he told IN.
Rogers told of a homebuilder that had five boats in the VOP, including a double-decker boat that his company used for parties during the summer Blue Angels air show on Pensacola Beach. “I told him, whatever you’re doing, get me in. I’ll pay you 20 percent.’ He’d just laugh.”
Rogers also shared, “One of my buddies has an air conditioning business. He stopped it to run his boat. Then he turned around and filed a claim with BP because his air conditioning business had suffered. He got money for that, too.”
OPTIMISTIC FOR SUMMER 2011
Chris Nelson, vice president of Bon Secour Fisheries, Inc., located in Bon Secour Ala., is optimistic about 2011. He grew up working on weekends and during the summer at his family’s business that started in 1896. Nelson has a master’s in Marine Environmental Sciences and was employed as a project coordinator with the National Fisheries Institute in Washington before returning to Bon Secour.
“The seafood has been analyzed, examined, observed and scientifically tested from every possible angle,” said Nelson. “And every credible source that I can find has told me that our seafood is safe.”
He said that the fears of contamination creeping into the food source have been unrealized to date, but Nelson warned it’s too soon to know any latent effects on the reproductive capability of “these different critters that we catch and how it
might impact my ability to produce seafood.”
“This is a completely unprecedented event, and we’re very early in the recovery process,” he told IN. “We’re all holding our breath. I look for a piece of wood to knock on every time I tell somebody that we seem to be doing okay right now.”
Nelson is in charge of oyster production for Bon Secour Fisheries. The oyster industry was hit particularly hard by the BP disaster. In good times, Louisiana’s rich coastal waters have produced 13 million pounds of oysters annually.
“There is no one in second place in the world to Louisiana in terms of oyster production,” said Nelson. “When that remarkable resource is offline, it affects everyone worldwide.”
According to Olivia Watkins, Executive Media Advisor at Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries, only 6.6 million pounds of oysters were harvested from her state’s waters in 2010. “Only five times since 1950 have we harvested less than 7 million pounds,” said Watkins.
“We are focusing on getting a healthy spat set in the spring and fall reproductive seasons,” she explained. Spats are oysters in free-swimming larval stage that have attached to reefs and have begun forming shells. “The public seed ground season will stay closed. There were a lot of closures last year because our scientists were concerned about the high mortality and the small size of the oysters.”
On Friday, April 15, the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries Officials and the Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority held a press conference to highlight BP’s failure to follow through on emergency restoration in the oyster beds.
DWF Assistant Secretary Randy Pausina announced an additional $2 million in funding for a cultch plant (the material, such as concrete or limestone, to which the spats attach) on public seed grounds, which brought the total state funds committed to emergency restoration projects for the oyster industry to $4 million. BP has committed to $15 million for improvements to oyster grounds, but has yet to fork over the money.
“People are very frustrated with BP’s reluctance to really step out and pay for the cultch plant that they initially said they were going to pay for in conversations with us,” said Watkins.
Pausina said at the press conference that is was time for BP to start acting like that responsible party it has proclaimed in its print, radio and television ads. “While BP is busy spending millions on advertising to prove that they are following through on their promise to make the oyster industry and all of our coastal fisheries whole, they have neglected to follow through on numerous projects that could have helped our oyster men and women get back to work,” he said.
Nelson said that his company has coped with the restrictions in Louisiana. “We’ve had adequate supply through the winter and hope to maintain that through the summer. Prices are still fairly high relative to what they were this time last year—about 20 percent higher.”
While Bon Secour Fisheries has done reasonably well with its BP claims, the company has filed suit against BP. “We’ve felt a bit restricted on what we could claim,” said Nelson. “It’s not simple accounting to see what we would have made last summer had we been working.
“What we saw was a rising shrimp market. Imports were struggling because they had disease problems overseas. It looked like we were going to do quite well if we had a good shrimp season. We don’t know how many shrimp we would have caught had there not been a spill and what the price would have been.”
Capt. Nelson doesn’t know what to expect from this year’s shrimp season in Mississippi’s inland waters, which opens June 1. According to the National Atmospheric and Oceanic Administration, shrimp landings in Mississippi in 2010 were 2.5 million pounds, down from 6.4 million in 2009. “A lot of us don’t know what we’re facing,” Nelson said.
WORRIED ABOUT HEALTH
While they wait for the shrimp, oysters and more checks from BP or the Gulf Coast Claims Facility, Nelson and his fellow captains who worked spotting and fighting the oil spill have begun to worry about their health. The Louisiana Department of Health has reported 415 spill-related health complaints, of which 329 came from workers, with the most common reported symptoms being dizziness, nausea and respiratory issues. Alabama officials have reported at least 272 cases related to oil exposure.
“I’m getting headaches. I haven’t puked, but I’ve been feeling nauseous,” said Stewart. “I weigh almost 400 pounds—there isn’t anything weak about my stomach.”
Local doctors have been able to explain the symptoms, according to Stewart.
Few will disagree with BP’s assertion that the multi-billion dollar corporation isn’t perfect, but many, not just the commercial fishing industry, worry whether BP will ever truly live up to its commitments.