Oil Cleanup Crews Express Health Concerns

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Fishermen who are out of work because of the BP oil spill are being trained to clean up the oil. Many of them show up for training happy to have a job. Some say they are worried about damaging their health while working with the oil.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

Of course, a large part of the Gulf of Mexico has been closed to fishing, which leaves fishermen in desperate need of cash. Many are joining the oil clean up effort, and BP is including some safety instruction. NPR's Carrie Kahn attended one of the BP training sessions.

CARRIE KAHN: Fisherman Gerard Falls(ph) came to the civic center in Larose, Louisiana in his blue work coveralls. He signed up for BP's latest clean up worker training. Falls is 60 years old and says he's always worked the shrimp and crab seasons. He's never done any other work.

Mr. GERARD FALLS (Fisherman; Trainee, BP Clean-Up Team): When you got to depend on this for a living and you're told you can't work no more - I've never been unemployed in my life, and that's an adjustment for us, my wife and I.

KAHN: He says he's happy to take the four-hour class and get his yellow card certifying that he's completed BP's safety training. That will let him to get a job on a cleanup boat. He has a friend who's ready to hire him.

(Soundbite of crowd)

KAHN: About a hundred people showed up at the civic center for the training and were ushered to a small conference room in the back of the large gymnasium, which was full of children enrolled in a day camp. BP's contracted trainers began signing up workers.

Unidentified Man: Get you to print your name, four-digit Social Security number, the last four digits.

KAHN: Cheryl Marbreaux(ph) is one of the new few women trying to secure a spot. She's a home health worker but works on a shrimp boat during the season.

Ms. CHERYL MARBREAUX (Trainee, BP Clean-Up Team): I want to be able to say I did help, but I need money too.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. MARBREAUX: So, I mean, it's for both.

KAHN: Marbreaux says if the Gulf is destroyed, she doesn't know how her family will survive.

Ms. MARBREAUX: We already talked about moving. We move if we have to, wind up moving up to Mississippi - north Mississippi somewhere. Just try to get a tract of land and getting a little pond so we can do a little bit of fishing. So we can teach the grandkids what it's like to fish.

(Soundbite of laughter)

KAHN: Marbreaux made it into the training, which is limited to just 48 people because of the small size of the room. More than 50 were turned away.

Inside the room, the fishermen and a few women sat on hard, plastic orange chairs and watched as trainer Earl Bush(ph) launch right into a slide presentation.

Mr. EARL BUSH (Trainer, BP Clean-Up Team): Some of the key points of BP's training: Your safety is top priority. It doesn't look right, don't do it. Don't feel right, don't do it. You're not sure about something, don't do it.

KAHN: Bush tells the trainees they won't be sent to any toxic areas. They will be kept onshore or close to land and will be dealing with oil that he says has been floating in the hot sun and has been weathered.

Mr. BUSH: It's made it non-toxic debris, no fire range, and no explosive range. Every day you go out, they're going to go out with monitor boats in your area you're supposed to work, and you're going to be working what they call a post-spill area.

KAHN: Bush says all workers will be equipped with gloves, goggles, white protective clothing and a hardhat. But advocates for the fishermen, who recently won a court judgment ordering BP to provide all necessary protective materials, say that's not enough. They want BP to provide respirators to protect from toxic fumes.

Marylee Orr heads the Louisiana Environmental Action Network.

Ms. MARYLEE ORR (Louisiana Environmental Action Network): I think you always need to err on the side of health and safety. This is the worst catastrophe, certainly, I think in our country's history. We're in uncharted waters.

KAHN: Who knows, she says, exactly what is toxic or not.

For its part, BP says they are aware of the concern and interest in equipping workers with respirators. But an official says the extra equipment is just not necessary.

(Soundbite of conversations)

KAHN: Back at the training, fisherman Donald Jeanfor(ph) says he would feel better if BP handed out the respirators just in case. He says he doesn't really trust BP's safety record.

You're still going to try and work for them.

Mr. DONALD JEANFOR (Trainee, BP Clean-Up Team): I'm going to try to save my heritage. That somebody else that would hire my boat, I'd go through them instead of BP.

KAHN: Jeanfor says he quit school at 14 and has been fishing ever since. Now 37, he says has to find something new to do because by the looks of it all that oil has put an end to shrimping in the Gulf.

Carrie Kahn, NPR News, Larose, Louisiana.

INSKEEP: This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News.

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