Jun 14, 2010 3:45 PM by Melissa Canone
MOBILE, Ala. (AP) - As countless tar balls washed ashore on a
beach along Alabama's Gulf Coast, cleanup workers sat and watched
because they didn't have the proper plastic covers to protect their
shoes. Elsewhere, a crew using shovels and garden rakes worked for
hours on a long stretch of sand that a machine could have cleaned
Almost two months after the Deepwater Horizon oil rig exploded
in the Gulf of Mexico, shortages of government-required protective
gear and cleaning equipment are slowing work to remove the sticky
mess and keep beaches and marshes along the Gulf Coast safe and
BP says it's doing all it can to keep supplies stocked and has
had to turn to foreign companies for help. But with demand so high
for everything from plastic gloves, to oil-blocking booms and
sand-sifting machines, finding enough items to outfit workers and
protect the coast is an unending task.
As the oil first stained the Alabama coast, officials say some
people hired to pick up tar balls off the sand couldn't lift a
finger because they didn't have the bright yellow boot covers that
have since become ubiquitous on the beach. The workers eventually
got the booties, and now, it sometimes seems like there are more of
them on the sand than bare feet.
BP also is still trying to find additional sand-sifting
machines, which are capable of cleaning long areas of beach in
minutes rather than the hours it takes to do the work by hand. The
company didn't even know they existed until Gulf Shores Mayor
Robert Craft recently showed off one operated by the city.
Coast Guard Lt. Erik Halvorson, a spokesman for the unified area
command overseeing the spill response, said shortages haven't
caused any major slowdowns in the cleanup, and large orders have
been placed in advance when needs are anticipated.
"I believe that any response work delays ... are localized and
short term, not widespread," he said.
Ronnie Hyer's company, Gulf Supply Co. of Mobile, has become a
major supplier of safety equipment and other gear being used all
over the Gulf Coast - but finding enough supplies has become a
"This is worse than a hurricane," said Hyer. "This is a
One day the shortage may be white disposable coveralls worn by
cleaning crews, Hyer said, while the next day it might be gloves.
Both are required under rules set out by the Occupational Safety
and Health Administration, he said, so crews can't work without
"There's no chain, no rope. There's a shortage of steel posts
in this area," he said. "They found some in Houston."
When Hyer's company finds an item, it buys in bulk. Pallets and
storage shelves all around Gulf Supply's site in northern Mobile
are full of sun screen, coveralls, degreaser, toilet paper, trash
bags, ice coolers, shovels, rakes and orange vests. A trailer is
loaded with shovels and rakes, and they found boot covers - 70,000
"They called yesterday and wanted 350 kitty litter scoops,"
said Hyer. "They clean the sand with them."
Many of the items in Hyer's warehouse are stamped "Made in
China." Though BP says it tries to buy from American
manufacturers, sometimes it's impossible.
"Where critical material is not available and will not be
available in any reasonable period of time we have literally
scoured the globe," said BP executive vice president Chris Sliger.
For example, BP's purchasers have bought boom in several
countries including the U.K., Norway, the Middle East, Brazil and
China - "literally every place we can get it in the world,"
But in the wetlands and marshes inside the barrier islands near
Grand Isle, La., all that boom is having mixed results. It works in
some places, holding back oil. But in many areas, there isn't any
boom and the shorelines are awash in sticky, brown crude.
"What really hits me the most is the lack of manpower and the
lack of equipment," said Jefferson Parish Council Chairman John
BP spokesman Michael R. Abendhoff said the company has called in
boom from all over the world and manufacturers working overtime to
"The hard boom is cleaned and reused," Abendhoff said. "The
soft boom has to be replaced with new boom when it's oil soaked.
The demand is unending now."
Around the Gulf, supplies are being stockpiled and shipped out
of 17 different staging areas from coastal Louisiana to Port St.
Joe, Fla., according to Halvorson. President Barack Obama was
scheduled to visit one of the largest on Monday near Theodore, Ala.
Sliger said BP is trying to buy additional sand-sifting
machines, which are pulled behind tractors down the beach. Work
will speed up considerably once those are available, he said.
"I believe ... that we purchased five more, and we're trying to
find as many more as we can," he said.