Houma shrimper prevails in decontamination fight


PORT FOURCHON — Barry Rogers fought the power. And he won.

The 53-year-old Houma shrimp fisherman spent seven months cleaning up the BP oil spill with his 65-foot trawler Oasis. He vowed to keep the boat moored to a Port Fourchon dock until he received proof that it was decontaminated Monday.

BP and the Coast Guard insisted that he accept a letter stating it was completely cleaned Sept. 30. But Rogers maintained and inspectors later agreed that the job was not complete.

“I said I am not signing this piece of paper with oil on my boat. And they said I had a bad attitude toward the decontamination process,” said Rogers, who remained afloat until the new cleaning was finished Monday.

He then demanded proof of the final cleaning.

Company and government officials said the Sept. 30 letter was sufficient but Rogers balked.

“That letter said it was completed Sept. 30 and that is a lie,” Rogers said. “Somebody missed what completed meant.”

After repeated demands from Rogers and inquiries from an attorney, The Courier and Daily Comet and fellow fishermen, a Coast Guard official delivered the letter at 4:30 p.m. Wednesday, ending what amounted to a two-day peaceful standoff of sorts. A BP spokeswoman said all decisions on Rogers’ boat were made by the Coast Guard.

The date is significant because Rogers maintains BP will have to pay him according to contract for the days he spent awaiting the final cleaning, and its documentation.

“I’ve got blood pressure out of this world,” Rogers said Wednesday morning, as he made phone call after phone call seeking the letter. “I am going to stay here until they bring that paper or make me leave or arrest me.”

Rogers is not the first local fisherman to complain about how thoroughly a boat was cleaned and decontaminated. He is the only one known to have refused to accept the BP decontamination certificate. Some fishermen had to have paint stripped from their boats and still had oil on decks and hulls that they cleaned themselves.

A BP official who looked into Rogers’ claims said Wednesday that he expected an answer later in the day, and that answer appears to have come with the letter Rogers received.

Coast Guard Petty Officer Makio Tazawa said in a telephone interview that his agency’s role in the certification process is to sign off “when we deem the vessel not a pollution threat to the environment.”

“It can be misunderstood,” Tazawa said. “Vessel owners might expect their vessel to be like new and in the same shape they were before the cleanup. The absence of a pollution threat is what we sign off on as our final letter. Additional work might be done by BP.”

That wasn’t enough for Rogers.

“That says verification of final decontamination, and I’d like to know how that was final, when there was still oil present after that decontamination,” Rogers said. “This from Sept. 30th is not the final decontamination. If it was I wouldn’t have been here doing the final decontamination Jan. 3.”

New Orleans attorney Jim Click made phone calls on behalf of Rogers to the Coast Guard, explaining the importance of the fisherman’s demand.

“He felt his boat was not decontaminated in September,” Clock said. “So even though he got this sort of form, if the Coast Guard had come on board and done an inspection and they saw this oil, he would cite him and give him problems.

“There was oil all on the back deck and under the brine tank,” Rogers said. “It would have been on the shrimp if I had gone shrimping. If I had dumped a bag on the deck it would have been in oil. Every inspector that came I said, ‘knowing what you know now would you eat shrimp that came off this deck and every one of them said, ‘Hell no.’ ”

Advocates for Rogers, like dock owner and shrimper Kimberly Chauvin, who organized the first fishing vessels responding to the BP spill after the April Deepwater Horizon disaster in the Gulf of Mexico, said his steadfast stance deserves applause. It is a further example, she said, of the difficulties fishermen continue to have with BP.

“You say you want to make everything right and make us whole; you’re not doing that,” she said of the oil company. “It is so simple. It just takes one person to okay, he needs a decontamination letter.”

Click said Rogers’ stand should not be seen as that of a man merely standing on ceremony, or on a technicality.

“A lot of fishermen want to make sure the environment is protected right,” Click said. “They don’t want to be harming it themselves and they want to make sure they are doing everything right.”

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Stuart H. Smith is an attorney based in New Orleans fighting major oil companies and other polluters.
Cooper Law Firm

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