Last week, the National Institutes of Health in the United States released a report that confirmed people living along the Gulf of Mexico who were very ill, but who for seven years have been told to keep quiet up about it, weren’t crazy after all.
Thousands of them had broken out in rashes. They had been coughing up blood, wheezing, experiencing migraines and were tormented by burning eyes and memory loss. Others were surprised by heart aliments, kidney problems, liver damage, blood in their urine and discharge from their ears. Still others muddled through cognitive decline and anxiety attacks. Many went on to die.
Yet barely anyone in a position of authority was willing to believe they were sick at all. Often, even their own doctors told them that it was all in their heads.
What these people had in common was that they had been cleanup workers on the BP’s Macondo well disaster, which for 87 days in 2010 poured 4.9 million barrels oil into the Gulf of Mexico after the Deepwater Horizon rig exploded that April 20 off the coast of Louisiana. It was the worst oil spill in U.S. history.
Some 47,000 people responded to the blow out. Fishermen rushed their boats into the fray to coral the oil at sea. Others worked to siphon it off beaches in Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and Florida. In other cases, they burned it off the surface of the ocean in flames visible from space.
All of these workers toiled under a haze of chemicals dumped from the skies to bombard the ballooning slick and sink it to the bottom of the Gulf. In most cases, they didn’t have protective gear – BP and its contractors told them they didn’t need it.
The U.S. Coast Guard and the Environmental Protection Agency backed that up – they, too, had been assured by BP and Corexit’s manufacturer, Nalco Environmental Solutions, that it was safe.
Last week, the National Institutes of Health finally told them, after a seven-year wait, that it wasn’t.
The report, published without fanfare in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives spelled out in clinical language what many here have long known: Deepwater Horizon cleanup workers exposed to Corexit during the nearly three months oil spilled into the sea were more likely to experience coughs, wheezing, chest tightness and eye, nose, throat and lung irritation than those who weren’t.
Still, the report represents the first extensive study on the impact of oil dispersants on human health.
Its conclusions came as no surprise. The Government Accountability Project, a watchdog group, documented reams of symptoms in interviews with cleanup workers that persisted as long as three years after the disaster. In 2015, the University of Alabama at Birmingham proved Corexit could damage human lungs and the gills of fish and other marine life.
For its part, Bellona gathered hundreds of hours of interviews along the Gulf Coast in the five years following the spill, and I compiled a small literature on its impact. Our conclusion, based on what we saw among sick and struggling fisherman who had volunteered their vessels, and eventually their livelihoods, to combating the spill was that the unprecedented dump of chemicals to disperse the oil had made them ill.
There is no joy in being right.
“Well, duh,” said Lamar Moore, a former cleanup worker who learned of the report when I contacted him again last week. Moore, who worked off the beaches of Alabama towing an oil skimmer, began coughing up blood and suffering blinding migraines during the first days of the spill.
“They made me think I was crazy for years just because I was sick,” he said. “When nobody wants to help you, you start to believe that maybe you are nuts.”
Cleanup practices were questionable from the start. BP foremen coordinating the work of the armada of fishermen, who had no recourse but to help, refused Moore and his crew the use of respirators and protective clothing – he was told it would scare the tourists. Such accounts were corroborated by hundreds of others across the gulf.
The attitude of official evasion became fear in other quarters: When Moore sought help at a local hospital he was told he was making things up for a quick payday. Like hundreds of others, he eventually found treatment far away from the gulf. Others weren’t so lucky. Jack Hill, Moore’s crewmate, died of lung cancer in 2015.
Later Moore’s original doctor confided to him that he was afraid of getting sued by BP for diagnosing conditions connected to the spill.
But doctors weren’t the only people getting spooked.
The Government Accountability Project collected dozens of affidavits from former cleanup workers who attested to being the victims of an intimidation campaign for saying they were ill. The sick were shadowed, their homes broken into, their trash ransacked, their privacy corroded. They became increasingly isolated.
Their advocates, meanwhile, were attacked in vicious online campaigns. With the rise of social media, whistleblowers posting photos of oiled beaches were swarmed by Internet trolls connected to the public relations firm handling spill press for BP.
Even Bellona wasn’t safe. When I followed up on these reports by contacting BP in my hometown of New Orleans, I was told to be “careful” because company officials knew where my child attends school.
The intimidation became so intense that even five years after the spill I was meeting with sources who didn’t want their names printed in locations they didn’t want me to disclose.
“We could get killed for what we’re telling you,” began one such conversation at a remote beach cabin in Florida.
The notion of a hush campaign squared with the high stakes BP was facing in the Deepwater Horizon’s aftermath. In April 2016, a federal judge in New Orleans found BP guilty of “gross negligence” for the oil spill, and charged that BP’s “profit-driven decisions” were responsible for the disaster. The settlement: $20 billion, the largest environmental payout ever assessed by the U.S. government.
But where all of this leaves those who became ill as a result of the dispersant is unclear. In the months after the spill, BP offered a one-time payment of up to $20,000 for people in the affected communities along the gulf. There was only one string attached – they couldn’t sue the company in the future.
Most of the sick I interviewed at the time had taken that payment, but Moore wasn’t one of them.
“All the lawyers I have talked to up to now said I didn’t have a case because nobody could prove Corexit made people sick,” he said.
Well, now we can.
Charles Digges is the editor of environmental and human rights news site Bellona.org.
The opinions expressed herein are the author's and not necessarily those of The Maritime Executive.