Cleanup crews must battle oil and heat, humidity
There's hardly a breeze to stir the reeds dotted across the tea colored water, but Allen Sreiy is covered from the chin down by a white plastic suit, his feet in bright yellow boots, hands in thick blue plastic gloves.
Sreiy's Tyvek suit, worn by hundreds of workers cleaning up oil along the Gulf Coast, protects crews from the crude but it also makes for a sweaty — and potentially dangerous — mess as a sweltering heat wave sweeps across the region.
"Whatever the temperature is, you put on this suit and you add 30 degrees just like that," Sreiy said.
Sreiy, 24, and his father, Siphan Sreiy, would normally be shrimping this time of year, going out in the cool of the evening and working all night. But with fishing grounds closed by the oil, they signed up for a cleanup program called "vessels of opportunity."
They are putting their boats to work pulling up oil-soaked boom instead of catching the seafood that New Orleans chefs turn into culinary works of art.
"It doesn't pay as well as shrimping," said Sreiy, who is from Buras, La. "But at least it pays."
If you can take the heat.
Forecasters issued an excessive heat advisory Monday for unrelenting high temperatures across the Gulf Coast states with heat indexes approaching 110 degrees. A heat index of more than 105 creates prime conditions for heat illnesses, according to the National Weather Service, which says heat kills about 175 Americans annually.
"It is a very dangerous situation," said Dr. James Diaz, head of environmental and occupational health sciences at the LSU Health Science Center in New Orleans.
Heat issues are reviewed every morning, said BP spokeswoman Stephanie Shanks. On-site supervisors, she said, are responsible for the effect of the heat.
BP says more than 24,000 workers assigned to the oil spill, but it's unclear how many of them are dealing directly with heat problems. Many are deployed on boats; others march the shoreline cleaning up oil blobs that make it to beaches.
"People from this area would have an advantage," Diaz said. "They would be acclimated to the heat and that really helps. People coming from areas that don't have this heat and humidity are going to have an even worse time with it."
Taslin Alfonzo, spokeswoman for West Jefferson Medical Center in Louisiana, said 70 workers had been treated for heat-related illness at a tent in Grand Isle. None was serious enough to require hospitalization.
In Orange Beach, Ala., cleanup crews were dressed in the Occupational Safety and Health Administration-required protective coveralls and drenched in sweat as they used shovels to remove the top few inches of oil-stained sand. With the temperature already at 96 degrees by early afternoon on Monday, forecasters said it felt like 112 degrees on the hot, white sand.
Generators powered big fans that were pointed under tent-like canopies where workers took breaks, and safety bosses reminded them to drink plenty of water. But after a few minutes in the shade, the workers were throwing big bags of sand into the bucket of a front-end loader rumbling up and down the sand.
Back in Louisiana, money has been hard to come by since the spill closed down most shrimping and oyster harvesting. The bills still come in, so Allen and Siphan Sreiy head out as often as they can, leaving the docks before daybreak and traveling an hour in their crude-stained boat before getting to the oil.
Across Barataria Bay — a huge expanse of water and marsh on Louisiana's coast — shrimp boats are scattered, with their big wing-like skimmers extending from their sides. Those skimmers would normally spread shrimp nets but now they spread boom.
Because of the heat, workers not wearing the Tyvek suits work 40 minutes on, 20 minutes off. Workers in the suits work 20 minutes on, 40 off.
"It's tough work," said Donnie Morgan, safety supervisor overseeing the work around Cat Island. "And it's hot work. These guys can't take more than 20 minutes in those suits. They need to cool off and get water."
Lyndon Jones, 42, of New Orleans shucks off his Tyvek suit and sips water in a small skiff off Cat Island.
He shakes his head and mops his face.
Normally, Jones says, he would be cutting grass at the New Orleans zoo. Instead, he makes the two-hour drive to Venice, then a two-hour boat trip through the marsh, where he suits up and lugs the slick, heavy boom into a small boat from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m.
"This is harder and hotter than cutting grass," Jones said. "But the pay is better, so here I am."
Associated Press Writer Jay Reeves in Orange Beach, Ala., contributed to this report.
Last updated: 2:04 pm Thursday, December 13, 2012