ON BAYOU DUFRENE, LA. — Aaron Cortez’s job is as small as the gulf oil spill is huge: His crew is supposed to track down pieces of oil-absorbing boom that have drifted away, and pull them back into position with metal hooks.
It’s work. But for someone who enjoyed the self-reliance and independence of his old job catching bayou crabs, it’s nothing more than that.
“Now you’re gonna see how boring our job is,” Cortez, 21, said one Saturday afternoon. Ahead in the sweltering marsh, an errant piece of boom bobbed like a lost swimming-pool noodle.
Cortez, who works for a contractor hired by BP, is part of a historic shift in employment that has altered the rhythms of daily life around the Gulf of Mexico. As the crews of local boats have been hired to help with the cleanup, thousands of men and women used to solitary, autonomous days on the water have become, in effect, low-level employees of an oil company.
For these crews — usually seen only in long-range TV shots, faceless participants in the gulf’s drama — working for BP can bring good pay and the pride of fighting the spill hand-to-hand.
But for some it comes at a psychological cost: They have given up control of their lives in exchange for hot days, bewildering bureaucracy and a nagging sense that the oil is still winning. The toll for a few individuals has been extreme, as illustrated last month, when a charter-boat captain working for BP committed suicide in Alabama.
“We’re dealing with people who are very resilient and used to being in charge of their own destiny. When that’s taken away, it creates an emotional and psychological crisis,” said Anthony Speier, deputy assistant secretary of Louisiana’s Office of Mental Health.
In the days after the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig sank April 22, BP began hiring private boats to lay out containment boom, spot globs of oil on the surface and test for oil below the water. Its best-known program, called “Vessels of Opportunity,” has now hired more than 3,200 boats, paying $1,200 to $3,000 per day.
In some places, the program has been welcomed as an economic lifeline. In Pass Christian, Miss., the mayor said so many local fishing boats have enrolled that “it looks like the Spanish armada when they’re coming in in the evening.”
“The unknown of where you were going to get your next paycheck from, all of that was taken away when BP employed us,” said William Scarborough, 40, who owns five of the boats that sail out of Pass Christian harbor.
He said many of his crew members have been dragging oil-absorbing boom underwater to check for pockets of oil, a task that is much less back-straining than their usual work catching, hauling and sorting oysters. “It’s as close to a stress-free work environment that I could have ever have hoped for,” Scarborough said. “I mean, my guys, they show up to work with bells on every morning.”
But for crews based in other spots around the gulf, working for BP can mean long hours, confusing orders and an unsettling up-close view of the spill in their fishing grounds.
Off Alabama, for instance, captains hired by BP have described playing a grim hide-and-go-seek with the oil. When they start their work in the morning, the oil is under the surface, a solid mass that shows up on the sonar device they use to look for fish. As the day warms, the oil rises until it bubbles up to the surface, a slick of orange goo in every direction.
A huge mess
The scale of the mess is staggering: One captain, who wouldn’t give his name, compared the work to “fighting Godzilla with a bow and arrow.”
“Everything we’ve ever known is different now,” said Chris Garner, a charter-fishing captain who has gone to work in the cleanup. “Anything I ever built, I mean it’s gone . . . the business, my client base, the Web site; I mean, it might not as well have been there.”
Don McPherson, another Alabama charter captain, said the nature of the work — which for him requires long, exhausting days on the water — could compound the problem, by making it hard for captains to talk about their stress with their families or one another.
“When I go home, all I want to do is eat, take a shower and climb into bed,” said McPherson. “In bed, I feel safe. . . . It feels like everything is okay and I’m away from all this. When I get up in the morning and I see the marina and I have to see the oil in the gulf, it is just very depressing.”
On June 23, the death of Allen “Rookie” Kruse revealed the strain this work can impose.
Friends and family said Kruse, 55, was upset both about the state of the gulf and about his difficulties with the cleanup effort, including payments he hadn’t received. Authorities say Kruse shot himself in the wheelhouse of his boat as his crew prepared for another day working for BP.
Steve Picou, a professor of sociology at the University of South Alabama who has studied the psychological impacts of major disasters such as the Exxon Valdez oil spill and Hurricane Katrina, said it was surprising to see the first suicide from the BP oil spill so soon. The first suicide linked to the Exxon Valdez happened four years after the spill, he said.
“This is very sudden,” he said. “It is almost like Exxon Valdez fast-forward.”
Since Kruse’s death, BP has said it has offered counseling services to his family and crew, and to others in his region. Around the rest of the gulf, a spokesman said, BP has opened seven offices in places near the cleanup work where workers can seek help about physical and mental health issues as well as other problems.
It has also distributed flyers to workers saying, “If you begin to feel overwhelmed by the work, contact your Team Leader to discuss taking a break.”
“The last thing we want are people that are, physically and mentally, not fully capable of helping with the response,” BP spokesman John Curry said. “We want them to be physically and mentally whole.”
Not doing enough?
Some officials have criticized BP for not doing enough to help these cleanup crews. Louisiana officials, for instance, have used $1 million to provide mental-health services to them. But they say BP rejected a request for an additional $10 million to continue and expand the program, as part of a larger request of $300 million from state wildlife and health officials.
The good and bad of working for BP’s cleanup were illustrated in just the few hours that Cortez — the Louisiana crabber — and his crew spent working one recent day, tending the boom on Bayou Dufrene.
On the good side, they said, BP pays well.
“After this job, everything’s gonna be cash money,” Cortze says hopefully. The men on the boat joked about what they’d spend it on: maybe a new truck with a double cab, maybe a nice new sport-fishing boat. Another one of his crew, 21-year-old Joel Sanchez II, jokes that they won’t be able to “make it rain” like hip-hop stars do in their videos, tossing money into the air at a nightclub.
But after BP’s paychecks arrive, they might at least be able to make it drizzle.
“That’s why I’m here. Gotta pay my damn bills,” Sanchez says.
Still, their work was long and tedious: Lay out boom, pull it up, move it from place to place. The deckhands could last only about an hour in the sun before they had to retreat to the center of Cortez’s bare-bones boat for shade. There was no air conditioning and no bathroom, only a bucket. They know every song on the radio.
And, although on this day there was very little oil on the bayou, it wasn’t even clear they were doing any good: The boom has proven ineffective against oil driven by waves and against wafting below the surface. Cortez said he was dreading the day that he first sees fish killed by the oil.
Then, he said, “I [will] know it’s killing our fish, it’s killing our industry, it’s killing our culture,” he says.
As Cortez brings the boat in for the day, a brown pelican swoops down near the boat. Cortez leans forward for a closer look. It’s tinged with oil.
Like the men on this boat, it’s not clear if the bird’s problems are temporary or terminal.
“Not real dirty, but dirty. I can see it on his wings,” he says, opting for optimism. “Good enough to survive and fly.”