US spill chief Thad Allen failed Thursday to reassure desperate fishermen about their Gulf of Mexico oil clean-up jobs, while BP began the legal wrangling in a massive civil trial.
As engineers prepared next week’s vital operations to permanently kill the capped BP well, Allen met with parish presidents and Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal in New Orleans to discuss how to safeguard local jobs going forward.
With little oil now floating in the Gulf, there are fears the popular “Vessels of Opportunity” program that employs fishing boats to skim crude off the surface of the sea might have to be scrapped.
Allen pledged to redeploy as many skippers as possible to other tasks, but could give no firm indication of how many of the 1,500 boats would still be working in the Gulf after next month.
“Obviously as we transition into a point where there’s not the threat of a spill, the involvement of Vessels of Opportunity is going to necessarily change,” he said after the meeting.
Allen said that over the next 10 days he would work with parish presidents and the governor to hammer out a plan for the fishermen and what to do with the program through to the end of August.
A large portion of the Gulf waters remain closed to commercial and recreational fishing and with lingering doubts about seafood safety, fishermen could effectively end up losing their jobs for a second time.
“The fishermen have missed a year, and we don’t know what the impact is going to be next year, or the year after that,” said Marty O’Connell, an environmental scientist at the University of New Orleans.
Many are worried it could be months or even years before they can fish again, and there are no guarantees the fish will be there in the same numbers when they do, or that they will be safe to eat.
“If BP uses the capping of the well as an excuse to minimize its clean-up operations, then shame on them,” said Mike Frenette, whose five boats in Venice, Louisiana missed an entire summer’s fishing due to the disaster.
Frenette had to apply four times before getting two of his five boats onto the program, which pays between 600 and 3,500 dollars a day, depending on the size of the boat.
“All that our Vessels of Opportunity work is doing is counting against our compensation claim. We’re not making any money, here, we’re just trying to keep our heads above water.”
Many disgruntled fishermen are expected to seek compensation for lost earnings and personal injury in the courts, and in Boise, Idaho on Thursday lawyers for disaster victims opened the first stage in a massive civil trial.
The hearing brought together a wide array of people and players linked to the disaster triggered by an April 20 explosion aboard the Deepwater Horizon rig, some 50 miles (80 kilometers) off the coast of Louisiana.
Plaintiffs range from the families of the 11 workers killed in the explosion to Gulf fishermen whose catch has been contaminated by the spill, threatening them with financial ruin.
A seven-judge panel will decide over the next few weeks whether to consolidate the litigation into one or several cases, and where the trial or trials should take place.
BP and other firms named in the claims argued for the venue to be the oil headquarters of Houston, Texas, but victims’ lawyers said it should be somewhere closer to those hit hardest by the disaster, like New Orleans. Joining BP in court were Transocean, which leased the rig to BP, Cameron International, which manufactured the blowout preventer, the device which should have shut down the well but failed to work properly, and Halliburton, the oil services company which had finished cementing the well only 20 hours before the rig exploded.
BP hopes to begin a “static kill” operation as early as this weekend to plug the capped well with drilling mud and cement. Five days later a “bottom kill” through a relief well should finish the job once and for all.
A cap stopped the flow on July 15 after between three and 5.2 million barrels (117.6 million and 189 million gallons) had gushed out, making it likely the disaster is the biggest ever accidental oil spill.