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Work Crews, Tourists Coexist on Gulf Coast Beaches

By Trevor Aaronson, The Commercial Appeal, Memphis, Tenn.McClatchy-Tribune Regional News

June 18, 2010 --OKALOOSA ISLAND, Fla. -- Alex Schmitt, dressed in a bathing suit on a sunny Thursday afternoon, wasn't expecting this kind of company on the white, sugary sand near Destin.

As the 23-year-old from Ohio sat with her family on the beach, 16 workers milled about wearing reflective vests and plastic wrapped around their shoes.

Employees of a company called Able Body Labor, the men and women shoveled tar balls from the sand as dozens of people sunbathed around them, as if the scene were as normal as a passing boat just offshore. Cleanup crews are scattered along the coast now, concentrating on isolated spots where oil has washed ashore in heavy patches.

"It's weird to see everyone on the beach and these workers, with no one talking to each other," Schmitt said. "It's like the workers know they're not supposed to be approachable."

Indeed, they aren't approachable. Despite assurances from BP officials that beach-cleaning contractors haven't been issued gag orders, no one affiliated with the contractors will discuss their jobs or their employers. In many cases, the contractors are subcontractors of contractors -- separated from BP by several corporate layers.

The hiring process for these contractors can be even more mysterious. A job ad circulated online earlier this month, which Memphis City Council member Wanda Halbert posted to her Facebook page, claimed to be from a Southaven contractor advertising cleanup positions for $1,000 per week, plus lodging and transportation.

A call Thursday to the listed number resulted only in a message: "There are no more jobs. I repeat, there are no more jobs." No company name, no further explanation. Later that day, the phone number was disconnected.

Farther west along the shore, 300 contract laborers had begun working around the clock from Perdido Key, Fla., to Gulf Shores, Ala. Tar balls have been washing ashore in this area for more than a week. But with laborers working no more than 15 minutes without a 15-minute break in the shade, efficiency is a valid concern.

Brandon Ard, a patrol officer with the Orange Beach Police Department, had been watching the crews all day Wednesday as he patrolled the sand in a black Jeep Wrangler and responded to a call about an oil-covered gull in the water.

"Yeah, they're cleaning it up," Ard said, putting up his hands to make quotation marks in the air around the word cleaning. "It's sad."

Valerie Lawson, visiting Orange Beach from Texas, agreed. In her hand, Lawson carried an oil-slathered shell she planned to take home as a souvenir.

"I collected more oil than they did," she said, holding up the shell.

Trevor Aaronson, a Florida-based freelancer, is a former staff member of The Commercial Appeal.


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