BP halts "Vessels of Opportunity" in Mississippi

BILOXI, MS (WLOX) - By Steve Phillips – bio | email

BILOXI, MS  (WLOX) -  They've been called "Guardians of the Gulf" for their active role in helping clean up the oil spill.

But with the offshore clean-up winding down, BP is ending the "Vessels of Opportunity" program in Mississippi, Alabama and Florida.

The oil company says nearly 3500 boats worked in the program, which cost about $500 million across the gulf region.

"Vessels of Opportunity" was designed to let local boaters and fishermen get involved in the oil clean-up. BP also used the program to try and offset the economic hardship caused by the Deepwater Horizon accident.

Participants we talked with give the VOO program somewhat favorable reviews.

"We were underway most every day before daylight," said Kathy Wilkinson, recalling her experience with the VOO.

She says the VOO paid good money, but meant long, hard days working the water. Wilkinson owns an Eco Tour business that normally takes visitors on the Pascagoula River.

"I had a really great March and a great April. And I'm starting a good May until the oil spill. Then the bottom kind of fell out ot it. My phone pretty much stopped ringing," she said.

She and husband Jeff got hired by the "Vessels of Opportunity" in mid-June and worked for the program until mid August.

They both love the water and say they would have likely been helping with the oil clean-up even without getting a paycheck from BP.

"Our chance to help protect the environment. The money was good, but if BP thinks paying everyone a lot of money is a good way to get us to forget what they did to our environment; then they're mistaken on that," said Jeff Wilkinson.

"It was a good experience. I mean we learned a lot. We got to be in the boat every day. There's nothing better than that. I hated the reason for it, but we feel we accomplished some things and did a good job," said his wife.

Many of the complaints about the "Vessels of Opportunity" program came from boaters or fishermen who signed up for the program but were not chosen.

BP did not take everyone who signed up for the VOO.

But those who were picked received substantial compensation: $12 hundred a day for smaller boats and $15 hundred a day for boats 30 to 45 feet.

"I just hope that our home returns to normal," said Ann Findeisen, who owns a yacht maintenance and boat detailing business.

She worked for the VOO, helping corral and clean up oil slicks around Ship Island and says she'd like to see the program extended.

"Even though a lot of people made money during the program, once it ended, now like my occupation is ten times worse than it was before. And so are a lot of the fishermen. People are scared. The tourist industry is down," she explained.

BP calls the VOO program highly successful, even though it was strongly criticized at times.

There were complaints the program was hiring too many recreational boats, while ignoring commercial fishermen who wanted to participate.

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