By Elizabeth Grossman
“This is my place. This is my peace. This is where I come to pray. Now it’s damaged for years to come,” Dauphin Islander Angela Bonner tells me as we stand on the pier that stretches out over the beach. This fine white sand beach on Alabama’s Gulf Coast is nearly empty save for clean-up crews finishing the day’s work and several pairs of beach goers. The beach is open but there’s a double red-flag advisory warning against going in the water. Regardless, a father and son with boogey-boards leave their bicycles at the end of the pier and head for the water.
“When the oil hit last week, people were walking up and down the beach in tears,” Bonner tells me.
Dauphin Island, a fish-shaped sliver of land at the southwest end of Mobile Bay, is home to about 1,300 permanent residents, vacation homes, and the businesses that cater to them. The day I’m there, many of the shops and restaurants are closed. Oil began washing ashore here in early May. There’s no boom along the water line and little visual evidence of oil now except small tar balls. BP has a claims office here, and Catholic Charities is offering qualifying residents emergency gas and electricity assistance.
“They’re here waiting for oil,” a man standing at the end of the pier says as we look out over the beach toward the clean-up crews.
Most of the clean-up crew is resting under a tent shelter. When I ask what they’ve been doing today, they say “no comment,” and “we can’t talk to you.” But the men in the nearby beach buggy who are supervising tell me they work for Clean Harbors – an “environmental, energy, and industrial services” company based in Norwell, MA. Most of the clean up crew are wearing matching t-shirts that say “Turnaround” in big white letters on the back.
“Our crews are trained and some of these folks we’ve worked with before,” one supervisor tells me. When I ask what kind of training, he says 40-hour training. This is the Hazardous Waste Operations (HAZWOPER) training typically required for hazardous materials clean-up work as opposed to the 4-hour training allowed to get lots of workers to emergencies, a provision established in the wake of the Exxon Valdez spill. Many Deepwater Horizon response workers have been certified with 4-hour training.
As I’m leaving the beach several school busses pull up and let off people who look just like those I’ve seen on the beach clean up crews, all with the same plastic sheathed ID tags, many wearing safety vests.
Back on Grand Isle, Louisiana two days later I see similar crews on the beach and in school busses in nearby parking lots. Curious about where these workers are coming from, I stop by the Community Center where a Louisiana Workforce Commission (LWC) representative is stationed. When he finds out I’m a journalist, he tells me to call the LWC public information office.
Louisiana Workforce Commission Also Wants Answers
“If you find out, please let me know,” says public information director, Lynn Dias-Button when I ask if she can tell me exactly who is being hired for beach clean-up work and by whom. “We’ve made requests to BP on this very issue,” she says. “We [the Louisiana Workforce Commission] have been promised this information. The Louisiana Attorney General has requested this information,” she adds.
“What we have been told is that the main contractors for BP are working through subcontractors and subcontractors,” says Dias-Button. She explains that people who’ve applied for clean-up jobs through the LWC are not being hired because the contractors say the jobs have already been filled. According to the LWC, the agency has received more than 13,000 applications for clean-up work.
LWC has been collecting applications because BP said that it would make “all reasonable efforts to employ locally qualified workers as a priority.” At this point, the LWC doesn’t know if that’s really happening.
Pursuing this issue, LWC executive director Curt Eysink wrote to BP Chief Operating Officer Doug Suttles on June 17th to follow up on unanswered questions about BP’s hiring practices raised by LWC in May. In his letter to Suttles, Eysink cited correspondence “sent in response to an incident in St. Bernard Parish on May 14 in which several people from outside Louisiana who had been hired by a BP contractor were removed on suspicion of being undocumented aliens.”
“Since then,” Eysink wrote to BP on June 17th:
…participants in the Vessels of Opportunity Program have reported encountering boats from other states working for BP in Louisiana waters. An oilfield staffing company with offices in New Iberia, Maxum Industries, acknowledged on Monday that it had bused in labor from Mobile, AL, and Brownsville, TX, to fill vacancies with a BP contractor in Louisiana. It is apparent that the instructions to BP contractors have not been followed.
In addition, we also have no confirmation that BP has created a reporting mechanism that ensures its contractors “are making all reasonable efforts to employ local qualified workers as a priority.”
Despite BP’s assurances that reports on state of residency of oil spill workers exist and would be forwarded to the State of Louisiana, we have not received those reports. It should also be noted that the LWC and other agencies of the State of Louisiana have made numerous requests for this information.”
In his letter Eysink also requested that BP – and all contractors and subcontractors – immediately report detailed information, including training and home addresses, for everyone hired for Louisiana Deepwater Horizon incident clean up work. In addition, he asked that BP require all contractors to use the LWC pool of qualified Louisiana resident job seekers and to fill clean-up jobs with those workers before offering them to out-of-state residents.
“Given the urgency of these issues we request your response by close of business on Monday, June 21,” wrote Eysink. Responding on the 21st, BP Chief Compliance Officer Gary Paulson told Eysink that “BP is requiring contractors to provide a written acknowledgement of their understanding of and commitment to follow BP’s instructions.” Paulson stated that “contractors hire locally where qualified workers are readily available,” and that BP has implemented a process “to better track state of residence data” and is “validating this information.” But BP, wrote Paulson, cannot comply with Louisiana’s request for social security numbers, dates of birth, or home addresses for all contract workers “because we do not collect this information from the contractors.”
Labor experts explain that this is common practice: contractors and sub-contractors do not typically submit employee information to the company that’s engaged them – in this case, BP. Contractors are expected to hire legally and comply with criteria set forth in their contracts. Any scrutiny of employee information would be at BP’s discretion or come from a governmental agency if deemed necessary. So on the Gulf Coast, state governments must, for now, rely on BP’s assurances, effectively leaving firm details about staffing of clean-up crews unanswered.
In his response, Paulson also said BP would “commit to follow up and corrective action as appropriate” if “substantial populations of non-state residents” are being hired or bused in for oil spill response efforts. But given the need for large numbers of trained response workers, adds Paulson, “BP is unwilling to prohibit non-residents from attending oil-spill response training in Louisiana.” This does not precisely answer Eysink’s question, which was about priority hiring of state residents.
In, Alabama, the Department of Industrial Relations has posted a notice saying that BP is hiring through its contractor, a company called P2S. Department spokesperson Tara Hutchinson explained that those seeking response work through the state are being channeled to P2S. Response workers are being hired from Mobile and Baldwin counties, she said. This was confirmed by Keith Stephens, spokesperson for the Fluor Corporation, the Fortune 200 company that owns Sugarland, TX-based P2S. But P2S is not the only BP contractor hiring in Alabama – and as in Louisiana, currently it’s hard to determine exactly who is being hired.
P2S does not have its own spokesperson, hence my call to Fluor. Clean Harbors has not returned several calls made in the course of over a week, nor has Ashland Services, a Louisiana-based contractor overseeing crews on the beach in Grand Isle. I reached BP’s training contractor, PEC, on several occasions, but they said they would not speak with news media.
While state labor departments want workers’ information to see if their residents are getting cleanup jobs, other agencies want this information to track any adverse health outcomes associated with cleanup work. NIOSH – with support of BP and the Unified Command – has just established a voluntary roster to follow up with workers about possible work-related illnesses or injuries. As of June 25th, 20,357 workers were included.
Meanwhile, I’m still trying to find out what organization the “Turnaround” on the Dauphin Island beach crew T-shirts refers to.
And at Gulf Islands National Seashore at Perdido Key, Florida, a woman who’s come to the beach with a mini-van full of children asks Coast Guard Lieutenant Matt Anderson if she can get her money back. “The water smells like oil,” she says.
Elizabeth Grossman is the author of Chasing Molecules: Poisonous Products, Human Health, and the Promise of Green Chemistry, High Tech Trash: Digital Devices, Hidden Toxics, and Human Health, and other books. Her work has appeared in a variety of publications including Scientific American, Salon, The Washington Post, The Nation, Mother Jones, Grist, and the Huffington Post. Chasing Molecules was chosen by Booklist as one of the Top 10 Science & Technology Books of 2009 and won a 2010 Gold Nautilus Award for investigative journalism.