The "Skeleton Crew"



As Unified Incident Command makes its move from "response to recovery," as National Incident Commander Adm. Thad Allen called it last week, cleanup crews and the Vessels of Opportunity (VOO) will suffer a few casualties — cleanup crews have slimmed by about 10,000 and VOO has slimmed by about 1,000 since Allen's announcement on July 29. Mother Jones says: "On July 13, the Deepwater Horizon Joint Command was reporting 46,000 responders. On July 23, it was down to 30,000, and the numbers have hovered around the low 30s since."

Pre-Bonnie figures for VOO participants were around 5,000 to 6,500. Today, the number is 4,950.

"Obviously as we transition to where there’s not as a threat of a spill … the employment of VOO is necessarily going to have to change,” Allen said last week.

Consider the changes VOO has already seen since its inception:

  • VOO participants sign up or call to register in a database, attend orientations and safety trainings, and within seven to 14 business days, they're out on the water. There wasn't a "time limit" — no contracts. Then there's "deactivation":

    BP decides when it needs to "deactivate" a vessel. There are so many applicants that BP has to "rotate, so everybody will be able to (participate)," says Valerie from BP's command center in Houston. (Valerie could not provide her full name, she says, as "it's against policy. That's everything out of our manual.")

    "The ones that have been deactivated have been out there since the beginning, which is about eight weeks now," she says. "You have to give everybody else the opportunity to get in. A lot of them aren't seeing it that way, but it's just the fair thing to do."

  • Then, on July 16, Louisiana Vessels of Opportunity director Judith Paul announced the "new" deployment plans to get more participants into rotation — which also pulls off those on the water, putting them in a sort of VOO limbo until their names come up again in the cycle.
  • But on July 29, Allen essentially said, "Too bad" — VOO was getting slashed. If you were waiting to get back to work, chances got much slimmer with "less oil in the Gulf" to clean up.
    Cue August: A slimmer fleet means less VOO participants and less paychecks, reports continue that there's little oil left in the Gulf as BP sneaks out of the disaster, and hey, why not, let's drug test those who are still left:

    Friday, the day before Bonnie, they sent a bunch of people home until further notice, and a lot of people didn't get the further notice," one supervisor told me. "Then last week, they shut the whole [cleanup operation] down. It was 'Piss in a cup or throw your ID in the bucket.' This was a BP drug test, not a [subcontracting] company drug test. It's the first time BP tested us."

    A BP spokesman told me that all its subcontractors are required to drug test their cleanup employees and allow BP to do random checks itself; it just happened to do one of those checks last week. But the cleanup workers believe the company's motivation was to fire a bunch of people fast. Maybe it's because they're conspiracy theorists. Or maybe it's because the subcontractors had long had openly lax substance-abuse standards. "Most of those people had never been drug tested before," the supervisor told me. "I worked for two different subcontractors that didn't test me." He also pointed out that the local bar's parking lot is nightly full of company cars and drunk guys who drive them; one cleanup worker I talked to had a picture in his phone of beer cans in the cupholders of cleanup vehicles in broad daylight. "They wanted to get rid of people, and drug testing was a good way to do it. I used to supervise 30 guys; now I've got 10."

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