Oil Spill Creates Manufacturing Boom

  • A truck loaded up with boom for the Gulf spill cleanup. (Photo by Nikki Motson)

The Gulf oil spill and a manufacturing boom…

This is the Environment Report. I’m Rebecca Williams.

When the BP oil spill started polluting the Gulf three months ago, a lot of unemployed workers in Michigan might not have guessed it would affect their daily lives.

But BP reached out to some Michigan companies to build oil boom for containment and cleanup efforts down in the Gulf.

Nikki Motson has more:

A related Environment Report story on the Kalamazoo River oil spill
An Environment Report story about seafood and the Gulf spill


Marysville, Michigan in St. Clair County was once part of the thriving manufacturing belt. Now the region is scattered with empty factories that once supplied the auto industry.

The operations that are still running have found ways to innovate and be flexible to changing trends. Fagerdala USA is among them.

Fagerdala received good news last year when Wham-O toys moved their manufacturing of kids’ products from China back to the US.

The Marysville plant was chosen to take over production of items like the pool noodles kids play with in summer. But they still struggled.

In Grand Rapids, Prestige Products had a modest staff of five employees making vinyl awnings for businesses and homes. But in the depressed economy business was down.

Then oil started gushing into the Gulf of Mexico from the BP oil spill. As the bad news was hitting residents along the Gulf states, good news came to Michigan.

BP was looking for people who could make enormous amounts of boom, and that meant Prestige and Fagerdala would hire as many people as their factories could hold.

The word spread quickly, and many unemployed workers in Michigan responded.

Each company hired about ten times more workers than their usual staff – within days. They moved quickly to transform themselves into major oil boom producers.

Charlie Cronenworth is plant manager at Fagerdala, USA.

“You know as unfortunate as it is, there’s also a bunch of people that are now working to help clean the thing up. We all feel for them, no differently than I’m sure they felt for us when the automotive industry went upside down.”

Josh Gierman was among the new hires. He has 2 kids, with another on the way. He had been looking for work since last winter.

“I was collecting unemployment. I really don’t have any free time anymore. Usually by the time I get home I’m pretty wore out. I don’t do much other than hang out with the kids.”

But Gierman says he didn’t mind working 56 hours a week, and doing work that might help the situation in the Gulf states.

Brian Rickel was the guy who first received the call from BP. He works in emergency response and leak repair. Rickel says he brought the multimillion dollar contract to Michigan because the manufacturing workforce is so strong.

“It’s hard to believe but you can go other places in the country and you can’t find the labor force. The labor force here has been phenomenal. And they all want to work. They really wanna work.”

As news of the BP oil spill worsened, production ramped up at both companies and boom was being pumped out 24/7.

Then the wellhead of BP’s Deepwater Horizon rig was finally capped.

Brian Rickel had been watching the massive cleanup efforts in the Gulf and he was sure the demand for boom would continue. But the contract with BP was up in the air.

Last week, a second oil spill happened even closer to home. An oil pipeline from Enbridge Energy burst and released an estimated 1 million gallons of crude oil into the Kalamazoo River.

Some people thought the new spill might be an opportunity to keep these Michigan companies hard at work. But Enbridge and the EPA reached out to a list of predetermined contractors for the boom needed to contain the spill.

Then the Michigan companies got more bad news. BP did not renew its contract.

Today, most of the new hires are once again among Michigan’s abundant unemployed.

But Fagerdala and Prestige now have all the equipment they need and a list of hard working people they can contact, if they have the opportunity to build boom again.

For The Environment Report, I’m Nikki Motson.