Oil Spill Draws Volunteers, But Few Put to Work

A June 10, 2010 file photo shows oil cleanup workers hired by BP gather on the beach in Perdido Key, Fla. The Gulf of Mexico oil spill has brought out thousands of people who just want to help, but BP has said it will use only trained workers and professionals to clean up the oil and wash oiled wildlife. AP Photo

The Gulf of Mexico oil spill has brought out thousands of people who just want to help — though there isn't much for them to do unless they own a Hazmat suit.

Directors of charities and BP PLC — the company responsible for cleaning up the spill unleashed after the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig exploded April 20 — say the outpouring has been huge among people with vivid memories of Hurricane Katrina five years ago.

However, cleaning oiled birds and tar-stained beaches isn't as straightforward as clearing rubble. In many cases, it's been difficult to find enough work for all the volunteers.

Special Section: Disaster in the Gulf

"Katrina needed everybody and anybody that could help," said Jim Kelly, co-President and CEO of Catholic Charities. "But this isn't a case of hitting the ground and helping to gut a house or rebuild it. The needs here are specialized in many ways."

With over 25,000 people involved on site, the oil spill cleanup is the largest in U.S. history, Adm. Thad Allen - the national incident commander for the disaster - said at a Friday press briefing.

But the vast majority of those responders are Coast Guard personnel and private contractors. Only 700 are volunteers, Allen said.

BP has said it will use only trained workers and professionals to clean up the oil and wash oiled wildlife, adding to the deepening frustration over the government and BP's response. The workers also need special safety equipment, said BP spokesman Mark Proegler.

Proegler suggested volunteers could visit the company's websites and sign on with subcontractors working along the Gulf Coast. But Bethany Kraft of the Alabama Coastal Foundation said in an e-mail that many people aren't looking for full-time work. And there's no guarantee they'd be hired because some states require that those hired be unemployed or otherwise affected by the spill, she said.

While foremen must take a full 40-hour hazardous materials course, most workers only need an abbreviated four-hour course, Kraft said. However, the need for such training — which so far hasn't been opened to the public by BP — may be overstated.

"All the Hazmat training does is basically tell people commonsense things, like don't eat it," said Edward B. Overton of the Louisiana State School of Coast and Environment. "The whole issue of training and bio-suits has lawyer written all over it. I'm sure it's more a question of liability than anything else."

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In Louisiana, many rushed to help upon seeing the horrifying scenes of bodies floating in floodwaters and people stranded on rooftops after Katrina in 2005. This time, the heart-rending pictures of oil-covered pelicans, dead sea turtles stacked on beaches and idled fishermen suddenly without incomes has sparked another outpouring of offers.

More than 15,000 from across the country have signed up on BP's official website, Proegler said. Others are volunteering through charitable organizations, environmental groups and state agencies.

"I grew up in New Orleans and went through Katrina," said Barbara Siefken, an unemployed attorney. She interrupts her job search twice a week to drive two hours to and from St. Patrick's Catholic Church in Port Sulpher to hand out food vouchers and baby supplies, or help fishermen sign up for services offered by the state or charities. "I know what volunteers did for us. I just wanted to give some of that back."

There are other ways to help, Some 10,000 volunteers without biohazard training have registered with the Coalition to Restore Coastal Louisiana, said executive director Steven Peyronnin. Hundreds of them have been sent to clear beaches of debris before oil hits, he said.

"It will help when the oil comes ashore," Peyronnin said. "It will make that job easier."

In Florida, about one-third of the 7,683 people who offered to help have actually worked, mostly in pre-oil beach cleanup, said Wendy Spencer, chief executive officer of the Governor's Commission on Volunteerism.

In Alabama, 5,000 people signed up for the first week of a training program designed by Mobile Baykeeper and Alabama Coastal Foundation, said Casi Callaway, executive director of Mobile Baykeeper. The program trains volunteers to go photograph and document what's happening along the state's shoreline.

"One of the problems we had was getting some kind of meaningful work for volunteers, Callaway said. "They were using a few to do clerical work, but people want to do more than that. They want to feel they are really a part of saving our waters and our coasts from all of this."
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