Oil cleanup comes with tensions in this Louisiana town

BP pledged to rid this semi-tropical coast resort’s sensitive shorelines of oil — to “make things right,” as the company put it. But as the cleanup work drags on, BP’s efforts have left the community at odds, heightening racial tensions and pitting neighbor against neighbor in disputes over money.

The oil giant’s cleanup campaign in this community of 1,500 permanent residents began in May with the arrival of nearly 1,000 cleanup workers who were housed in fishing camps, motels and cottages otherwise reserved for the bread-and-butter summer clientele of sport fishermen and vacationers.

BP’s contractors paid several times the going rate for accommodations, unleashing a frenzy of competition among landlords and realtors lured by offers of more than $100 a head per night to house cleanup workers.

Overnight this hot, drowsy, white southern Louisiana fishing town was awash in spilled oil and outsiders, many of them African American and Latino, who wore their pants down low, cruised through town with stereos blaring and caroused at all hours. Some of those workers, BP officials said, had criminal records.

Public shock about the oil spill turned to anger about the workers, fueled by unsubstantiated rumors of rampant crime and intimidating encounters with the workforce that many here compared to an invading army. Some of that anger was also directed at neighbors who bragged about earning as much as $30,000 a month in rental fees from BP contractors.

Some town leaders attributed the dissension and racial tension to anxiety and jealousy on the part of locals whose livelihoods had been brought to a standstill by the BP catastrophe.

For the first time in memory, many locals say, the residents of Grand Isle started locking their doors at night.

On Sunday, Grand Isle police arrested BP contract worker Juan Carlos Escalera-Rodriguez, 31, of Jennings, La., in connection with a nonfatal stabbing reported July 1 at Cisco’s Hideaway. But the incident was a rarity.

Grand Isle Police Department statistics show that crime is down. In July 2009, there were 29 arrests, compared with 22 during the same period this year. All the arrests were for misdemeanors, except for one felony narcotics charge.

“We’ve tried to tell people that there is no crime wave in Grand Isle,” said Peggy Chighizola, secretary to the chief of police. “But we’re not used to strangers, and gossip travels fast in small towns.”

Two months ago, some Grand Isle residents made disparaging remarks about the work crews, but among themselves.

Now, as temperatures soar and tempers fray, the controversy has reached a fever pitch on Santini Lane, a narrow road in the heart of the seven-mile-long island lined with wood-framed homes shaded by gnarled oaks that protect them from hurricanes. Last week, five residents displayed Confederate flags, while others hoisted the skull-and-crossbones. On Monday, three Confederate flags were still on display.

“Those flags mean that this is our hood,” said Grand Isle Fire Chief Aubrey Chaisson, who has a Confederate flag on display at his home. Chaisson, a longtime island resident who likes to talk about his Native American heritage, is the incident commander for the spill response on Grand Isle.

The trouble on Santini Lane began on a recent weekend afternoon after an African American contract worker who lived in a nearby rental property urinated on Chaisson’s fence. “My kids were in the swimming pool at the time,” Chaisson recalled, “and that guy was laughing and looking right at me.”

He added: “That triggered World War III in this neighborhood.”

A group of angry residents led by Chaisson complained to the landlord, who evicted the tenants the same day. They were later replaced by white tenants.

Before long, nearly every resident on Santini Lane had an unnerving anecdote to share about drunken strangers passed out on their lawns, banging on the front door after midnight or swimming in their children’s plastic play pools after dark. One homeowner said he saw an AK-47 in the back of a contract worker’s truck.

“Just the other day, another neighbor with a place to rent came over and said, ‘I’d like to bring in some BP contract workers; that OK with you?’ ” Chaisson recalled. “I said, ‘You bring them in and there is going to be trouble.’ ”

The neighbor decided to not house the workers. “That neighbor did the right thing,” Chaisson said. “He chose friendship over money.”

A few doors down, Theresa Brunies, 48, who has hung a large Confederate flag over the outside balcony of her home, said, “I’d hate for Grand Isle to become known as a racist community. But these flags are just our way of telling strangers to keep out.”

Brunies said she runs a catering business that prepares more than 1,200 boxed lunches a month for contract workers on Grand Isle. “They pay very well,” she said. “It’s definitely been a boost to my revenue.”

Residents led by Police Chief Euris DuBois recently took their concerns about rowdy, disrespectful contract workers to BP officials. The company responded almost immediately, DuBois said, by hiring a task force to conduct random drug tests and background checks.

As a result, the company weeded out more than 400 workers who failed the drug tests and background checks, or refused to submit to them, DuBois said. “And we haven’t had too many complaints in town in the last two weeks.”

Over at Daddy’s Money, a bar featuring “female oil wrestling,” manager Jack Jambon, 72, said, “Some people around here don’t like the blacks. They say they whistle at their kids and so forth. But I recently had 270 customers come through the doorway and 70% of them were black BP contract workers. No trouble.”

Curtis Thomas, BP’s public relations representative in Grand Isle, said balancing the company’s efforts against the community’s needs and fears had been a complicated affair.

“The folks who live on Grand Isle have a homogenous clientele,” said Thomas, who is African American. “They weren’t used to seeing a mass of people of color coming into their isle — right or wrong, it made them nervous.”

The cleanup crews could be here for months, and Thomas said BP was trying to ease tensions in town. “We found summer jobs for more than a dozen local youths,” he said. “We continue to meet with the mayor on a daily basis. We’re here for the long haul.”

Just this week, there were signs that life was returning to normal. State fishing restrictions have been lifted in most local waters, and a two-mile stretch of beach opened for the first time since oil washed ashore in May. Sport fishermen returned to marinas.

On Sunday, BP hosted a “Back to School Barbecue and Movie Night” at the community center. The movie was the animated feature " Monsters vs. Aliens.”