BURAS, Louisiana (Reuters) - Hundreds of contractors and thousands of workers are swarming over the U.S. Gulf Coast, hoping to cash in on the country’s worst oil spill.
BP Plc has committed to set aside $20 billion to clean up hundreds of miles of Gulf of Mexico shoreline that has been fouled by the massive oil leak caused by the April 20 explosion of a deepwater rig.
Although the spill has wreaked havoc on the fishing and tourism industries along the Gulf Coast, others will benefit at a time of high unemployment in the United States.
Louisiana-based Shaw Group Inc won a $360 million contract to dredge up the land and construct massive sand berms to protect barrier islands from the encroaching oil.
Halliburton Co, ConocoPhillips, privately held DRC Group and about 560 more contractors have been hired to help clean the Gulf, according to BP. BP declined to disclose the value of the contracts.
With up to 5.4 million barrels of oil spilled by the ruptured Macondo well, the U.S. government estimated last week that about 1.6 million barrels are still in the water.
BP capped the blown-out well, at least temporarily, on July 15 after it gushed oil for nearly three months and the company hopes to plug it permanently in mid-August.
The spill has affected over 600 miles of shoreline in five states, appearing as caramel-colored globs and ropy strings that have marred sensitive marshlands and stained Florida’s white-sand beaches.
On the road that leads to the southern tip of Louisiana, pickup trucks carry boats that will be deployed to fight the spill. One of the boats’ owners rubs his hands together and says he is here for the money. Most of the recent hires say the same.
“The money is nice,” said Randy Riggins, who lives in BP’s trailer town in Venice and lifts oil-containing boom onto boats for Louisiana-based Contaminated Control Inc.
About 40,000 people have been hired for the clean-up work, many of them from out of town. Motels are booked for months and BP has erected a small trailer town to house 1,000 people.
Along the Louisiana peninsula, the marinas are alive.
Early morning at the Venice Marina, men in lifejackets sit on picnic tables and smoke cigarettes while waiting to board the boats. At the Cypress Cove Marina, boat captains in Bermuda shorts and Coast Guard officials mill about waiting for their daily assignments.
Some 5,000 boats and aircraft go out into the Gulf every day looking for oil and bringing supplies into the water. People comb the beaches and marshes, lift miles (km) of plastic boom onto trucks and boats, pick up trash and haul equipment to and from various sites.
But the booming business for ship owners could be short-lived.
There could come a time when the fleet of privately hired vessels — many of them out-of-work shrimpers and fishers — will not be needed to skim oil from the sea, the top U.S. oil spill official said on Monday.
“We are looking at other things like surveillance, maybe using them to do some testing,” retired Coast Guard Admiral Thad Allen said.
At the Black Velvet Oyster Bar & Grill in Buras, sales are up 30 to 35 percent. Pickup trucks and SUVs fill the small parking lot and line the street, and customers include a film crew, wildlife officials and clean-up workers.
But the restaurant’s owner, Byron Marinovich, is nervous for the future. He hardly sees anyone he recognizes anymore.
“I am worried about the long-term effects of oil spill,” he said. “What will happen?”
Editing by Chris Baltimore and Eric Beech