MOBILE, Ala. - 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 in minutes.
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 oil-free.
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.
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 daily struggle.
"This is worse than a hurricane," said Hyer. "This is a never-ending hurricane."
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 them.
"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 of them.
"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," Sliger said.
Around the Gulf, supplies are being stockpiled and shipped out of 17 different staging areas from coastal Louisiana to Port St. Joe, Florida, according to Halvorson. President Barack Obama visited one of the largest on Monday near Theodore, Alabama.
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.
Associated Press Writers Brian Skoloff in Gulf Shores and Mary Foster in New Orleans contributed to this report.