Mark Miller, whose environmental clean-up firm has hired nearly 1,500 workers in the Gulf Coast in the past month, takes issue with the term "spillionaire" -- those who are cleaning up from the oil cleanup.
"There are probably companies or people who became 'oil spill' experts in the Gulf of Mexico the day the spill happened," said Miller, owner of the New York-based Miller Environmental Group, which was founded in 1971. "The 'spillionaire' term, which originated with the Exxon Valdez spill, was more geared towards the instant expert and instant contractor that capitalized on that event and really didn't come with the real structure and capability and experience."
Like the 1989 Exxon Valdez disaster in Alaska, British Petroleum's calamity in the Gulf of Mexico has turned into a lucrative business opportunity for many locals and outsiders. Exxon spent nearly $4.3 billion in cleanup and legal costs after that disaster, the most expensive at the time. Experts have estimated that BP will spend more than $20 billion on the cleanup alone, and that will mean a new generation of "spillionaires."
Gunnar Knapp, professor of economics at the University of Alaska in Anchorage, said the Exxon spill benefitted the financially-strapped state in hard economic terms, spawning a local oil-spill-cleanup industry. These oil cleanup entrepreneurs undoubtedly contributed to the state's 21 straight years of economic growth.
Driving along the Mississippi River during a visit to the Gulf region last May, Knapp said, the scene was eerily familiar.
"I saw things that were reminiscent," he said. "I saw big trucks carrying containment booms. I struck up a conversation with somebody who worked at a restaurant and they were working night and day feeding these cleanup crews. The economic impacts of these disasters are roughly proportional to the amount of money being spent."
That money is winding up in the hands of companies that can provide ships, crews, equipment, expertise and even the chemical dispersants used in the cleanup effort.
The British oil giant set up the "Vessels of Opportunity" program to hire local boat owners – mostly fishermen whose lives were interrupted by the disaster – to help with the cleanup. The pay is about $3,000 a day plus $300 a day per crew hand and the cost of fuel. This week BP had 1,584 "Vessels of Opportunity" working the disaster, according to the company website.
In May, Miller set up shop in a vacant Kia auto dealership in Mississippi. His firm initially responded with about two dozen people and a small fleet of vessels that sucked up oil in shallow waters. Soon he was supplying crews in Mississippi and Florida to clean up beaches and marshes. In the last month, he hired nearly 1,500 workers.
"There were people available who had skill sets that are very applicable to oil spills: boat operations, mechanically inclined people, folks who had local knowledge of the waters," he said. "By June, the demand came to basically double the resources. That's when we went full out looking to the local labor pool. We started screening people and set up a whole HR department to conduct interviews and background checks."
Miller would not reveal the value of the cleanup contracts his firm has received but said the extra work came after a decline in business in 2009. He believes the BP spill will transform the oil cleanup industry.