GULF SPILL:

Sprawling BP cleanup operation overwhelms sleepy coastal towns

VENICE, La. -- Across the coastlines of four states touched by the massive Gulf of Mexico oil spill, armies of cleanup workers in protective suits are collecting tar balls and crude.

Offshore, boats contracted by the company responsible for the mess, BP PLC, pepper the horizon. Some are searching for floating crude or oiled wildlife, some are skimming the slicks and others laying protective boom or removing oiled boom. Helicopters occasionally whir by on oil-spill reconnaissance missions.

Sprawling parking lots have been converted into cleanup staging areas, each with huge white air-conditioned tents, golf carts, heavy equipment of all kinds, stacked pallets of bottled water and other supplies.

While many are calling for a more forceful response and additional resources, the region is already being transformed by the massive scale of BP's efforts.

BP said yesterday the cost of the response so far has been about $2 billion. Company and Obama administration officials said 500 miles of containment boom and 740 miles of sorbent boom have been deployed, about 33,700 people are currently working on shoreline and wildlife protection and cleanup, and more than 6,300 vessels are involved.

The size of the operation hits home here, where several aspects of the spill-response work converge.

On a lot along Highway 23 north of town, a military helicopter with a long rope dangling from it hovered last week over a pile of large white sandbags. Workers on the ground attached bags to the rope, and the helicopter headed toward the water to drop its load where a sand berm is being built.

In its wake, another helicopter moved in to pick up its share of sand, followed by another helicopter and another, forming a continuous loop like bees to their hive. Some of the craft are military, others are private, but they all will be paid for by BP.

Across the highway from the helicopter staging area is the Fort Jackson Wildlife Rehabilitation Center. About 50 workers from nonprofit groups contracted by BP to clean wildlife have taken in about 600 live birds so far. The center has treated pelicans, egrets, herons and laughing gulls, among other species.

And on a vacant lot along the highway closer to town is the new "Venice Responders Village." The 32-acre site has been turned into a temporary town for 2,000 workers -- almost as large as the population of Venice. Cleanup crews will sleep and eat at the camp, which even has its own medical center.

BP's push has ruffled some feathers here. Local officials say the company built the village without permits; they want BP to be more open about its plans.

BP representative Robert Bruant and BP contractor JD Futch appeared before the Plaquemines Parish Council recently, seeking a "somewhat retroactive construction permit," the Plaquemines Gazette reported.

"Because of the dispersant agent they're using, [the oil] sunk and is rolling in," Futch told the council, stressing the need for cleanup crews, the paper reported. "Now you're talking about an army. Our biggest problem right now is that we have nowhere for them to stay."

Council members resented the lack of respect for local permitting processes. Marla Cooper, who represents the district where the village stands, told Bruant that he "did everything else but disregarded the government," the paper reported.

Across the Gulf

In Florida, booms aimed at blocking the advancing oil ring parts of Pensacola Bay. Last week BP-contracted boats to patrol off the white sandy beaches in the Fort Pickens area of Gulf Islands National Seashore, while other boats near a fishing pier in the park deployed boom.

In Mobile Bay, Ala., crews were deploying boom off USS Alabama Battleship Memorial Park just outside the city to protect against oil reaching the sensitive Mobile-Tensaw Delta.

At Bon Secour National Wildlife refuge near Gulf Shores, Ala., BP contract workers drove backhoes and heavy trucks across the beach to remove large mats of oil that have washed up. Parking lots in the refuge usually used by visitors now are staging grounds for the work. An Alabama state trooper stood guard on the road leading to the hardest-hit beach area, which is lined with cars, vans and trucks for the workers.

Not all the efforts have borne fruitful. BP and numerous federal agencies together are hosting "open houses" in Louisiana parishes with officials stationed at information tables to field individual questions from concerned local residents.

But an open house last week in Chalmette attracted so few people that officials and journalists outnumbered visitors. The BP representative at the event, a PR specialist, had been hired as a contractor after the spill started. By contrast, a town-hall style meeting a few weeks earlier in Chalmette drew about 200 people who vented their frustration publicly and peppered officials with questions, local media reported.

Throughout the region, although residents want BP to carry out the badly needed cleanup operations, some lament the intrusion into their formerly peaceful towns.

In Grand Isle, La., lifelong resident Kay Lesseigne dislikes the steady, roaring flow of large trucks down her normally peaceful side street that has become the route to a BP staging site.

"All of our neighborhood was peace and quiet," she said. "If it wouldn't be for BP, we wouldn't have the traffic."

Want to read more stories like this?

E&E is the leading source for comprehensive, daily coverage of environmental and energy politics and policy.

Click here to start a free trial to E&E -- the best way to track policy and markets.