US & Canada

Cleaning up oil on Independence Day

It is 0600 at the dock in Dauphin Island, Alabama, and the men who will be trying to prevent the spill spreading any further are turning up for their clean-up and containment duties.

Day 77 of the oil spill is a federal holiday, Independence Day, but it makes no difference here.

There is a job to be done. Except this morning the weather is not co-operating. It is stormy out there and the boats which are used to lay the boom to prevent the oil coming ashore, and to take the men out to clean the beaches on the far side of this small island in Mobile Bay, are not going out.

Image caption The work went on notwithstanding the holiday

Henry de La Garza, a spokesman for BP, says there is lightning offshore and it is too dangerous to set sail.

The hurricane season is complicating an already fraught protection and clean-up operation.

For the 1,800 people who live on Dauphin Island, this should be the busiest time of year.

July 4th weekend usually draws at least 13,000 tourists but as the mayor of Dauphin Island, Jeff Collier, tells the BBC, this is the place that time forgot.

He cuts a solitary figure on the golf course.

"Normally you would have hundreds of people playing here. We have a golf tournament usually, as well as the firework display."

Not this year.

The mayor has cancelled the celebrations because no one is in the mood. They are all focussed on trying to protect the island from the worst of the spill.

Crumbled dream

Six hundred people man the beaches and collect the tar balls as soon as they wash in.

The beaches are clean and a few swimmers are enjoying the waves, an incongruous sight next to the workers sifting through the sand.

Mounds of sand called berms have been heaped on to the beach, a further line of defence against the oil. Out to sea, an even more ambitious project is under way.

Hurricane Katrina in 2005 left a mile-wide gash in Dauphin Island and now barges full of rocks are out there in the water, as the attempt is made to close the gap between the two sides of the island to prevent the oil washing on to land.

People fear a hurricane could blow the oil through the Katrina cut, and on to Alabama's Gulf coast.

Whatever can be done to stop the oil comes too late for retired nurse Fae Chamblis. Her dream of running a tiki bar in the sun has crumbled.

The small amounts of oil on the beaches have driven away her customers and she will close in September.

"The oil spill has put me out of business," says Fae sadly.

Something to celebrate

Mayor Collier is hoping that by September there may be something to celebrate, like the capping of the leaking well.

"What we are hoping is that when things get cleared up and cleaned, we might be looking ahead to possibly Labor Day," he says.

"When we feel there is a time to truly celebrate, then we might go back and revisit the idea of fireworks."

For Dauphin Beach, the holiday marking America's independence from England is spent cleaning up after a British company, BP.

But apart from what Sandi Sands, who handles security for the mammoth containment operation, calls a few off-colour jokes, the focus here is not on Brit-bashing but on co-operation.

"America is coming together," says Sandi, a lifelong Dauphin Island resident. "I am so pleased, we aren't alone."

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