NEW ORLEANS, LA - For a spill now nearly half the size of Exxon Valdez, the oil from the Deepwater Horizon disaster is pretty hard find.
Satellite images show an estimated 4.6 million gallons of oil has pooled in a floating, shape-shifting blob off the Louisiana coast. A small amount has reached shore as a thin sheen, and gooey bits have washed up as far away as Alabama. But the spill is 23 days old since the Deepwater Horizon exploded April 20 and killed 11 workers, and the stuff hasn't shown up on the coast which has been puzzling state and federal officials.
Apparently enterprising shrimp boats banned from shrimping due to the pollution are using their on board pumps to scoop it up by the barrelful unknown to officials overseeing the leak. The boats are then off-loading the oil to a makeshift refinery cobbled together on a Cuban registered freighter anchored in international waters. The refinery ship has been operating around the clock for about two weeks boiling off the sea water and storing the cleaned crude in tanks in her hold.
A representative from the Mexican embassy in Dallas, speaking under the promise of anonymity, says Cuba is paying the reclamation boats up to $US 35.00 a barrel. By delivering up to 50 barrels at a time a captain's compensastion can exceed what they make on normal shrimp runs. That is because each boat can fill enough barrels for four to five trips to the refinery ship daily.
Thomas Dixon, a boat captain who has been a Bayou shrimper for 48 years normally catches shrimp, minnows and crickets which he sells at his live bait shop here. Reached by VHF radio on his boat the St. Charles, he says, "The last several years, with prices dropping for our catches, we have been living hand to mouth. Then when we learned of the spill we thought, good golly we are completely out of business now. But providence was on our side."
"Now we are just so grateful for this spill and hope that BP is unable to stop it, at least for the foreseable future. Us folks around the lower Bayou have almost doubled our incomes through collecting it and at the same time doing a good thing by protecting our coast line. So it is a double win for us and the whole Gulf economy. We thank the heavens for what has happened to us. Now we can send our kids to college and get them out of shrimping altogether. It's a tough way to make a living even in normal times."
The Cuban government has refused to comment despite numerous requests.