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Donors Frustrated Hair Booms Not Used For Oil Spill Cleanup

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MIAMI — Like countless beauticians across the country, Ana La Bella has had the hair swept from the floor of her salon, wrapped in plastic bags and shipped off to help contain the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.

But the boxes she sent are piling up with hundreds of thousands of pounds of hair, pet fur and fleece in 19 warehouses spread throughout Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana and Florida.

BP and the U.S. Coast Guard say they are not using hair to sop up the oil, and don't plan to.

La Bella, who has a chalkboard near the entrance of La Bella Salon telling they are collecting hair for the spill, said she would be angry if the hair is being collected for no reason.

"I would feel responsible for my clients' hair," she said.

The hair-for-oil effort was organized by the San Francisco-based nonprofit Matter of Trust, which after repeated requests for comment by telephone and e-mail released a statement over the weekend saying there had been a misunderstanding with BP.

The hair was collected to make homespun oil boom to contain the ooze as it invades deeper into coastal marshland.

Engineers said they concluded that using the hair was not feasible, and the organizations collecting the hair were asked to stop doing so.

"We foresee a risk that widespread deployment of the hair boom could exacerbate the debris problem," said Coast Guard spokesman Petty Officer Shawn Eggert in Robert, La., at the main command center.

Mark Salt, a BP spokesman based in Houston, Texas, said the company is using something called sorbent boom, which is made of materials that attract oil, but repel water. The materials are placed in fabric socks.

"There's currently no shortage of this sorbent boom in Louisiana and thus no need to consider the need for alternative products," Salt said.

Maggie Sherman, 31, was glad to have her hair donated – and hoped there was a chance it would still be used.

"In my mind, I think they should be doing everything that they can in every capacity. There's no telling what the chemical dispersant is doing to the environment," she said.

In its statement, Matter of Trust said the boom is there in case it's needed, but they are asking new participants to wait for their alerts before sending more hair to the gulf.

Matter of Trust also said representatives from other harbors have contacted them about using the hair for smaller spills.

"We shampoo because hair collects oil. Why should millions of pounds of absorbent, natural, renewable fiber clippings go to waste every day?" the group said on its website.

Human hair collected by the group is worth money, but it's hard to quantify how much, said Jackie Goldstein, general manager of Yaffa Wigs in Miami. The value of the hair depends on the length and the quality of the hair. In general, quality human hair wigs are priced between $350 and $3,500.

"You can make wigs out of any human hair, it just depends on the length," she said.

The FBI is not aware of any complaints received by the National Center for Disaster Fraud concerning this type of solicitation.

Chris Watts, co-owner of the full-service pet care facility Petropolitan in Dallas, said the business has collected about 500 pounds of animal hair since they started collecting about 10 days ago. They offered discounts as an incentive and have also told groomers and rescue groups in the area to bring hair to them.

UPS has donated free shipping for up to 1,600 pounds, he said.

"This is one of those types of things that people really want to help make a difference," he said. "This is also an opportunity to let other people feel like they could help."

Watts said it would be unfortunate if the organization didn't communicate better with the people collecting the hair to explain that they weren't sure that the hair was going to get used.

"If it's not going to happen, that's fine, just let us know," he said. "It doesn't mean that we aren't trying to do the right thing. So, we can feel good about that."

Watt's client Lane Kirby brought her two dogs Kiki and Brandy to get haircuts and said the disconnect between the nonprofit and BP is odd.

"If they are saying one thing and doing another it's dishonest and it's wrong. A lot of people are going to go in with the sole intention to donate. I think a lot of people will do that," she said.

Back in Miami, Julie Hanrahan went to La Bella Salon to get her hair cut an inch-and-a-half. She was due for a cut, but she also wanted to help with the oil spill in some way.

"It's probably the only thing any of us can do right now," she said. "I made the best effort I could in helping."