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TJ Johnson remembers the day he and his cousins were sprayed. Bobbing in two small boats four miles off the Alabama coast, they were using plastic nets to scoop out thick, noxious crude that had gushed to the surface after the Deepwater Horizon rig exploded 40 miles off the Louisiana shore. Nobody had protective gear on, and no one worried much about the slimy, foul-smelling oil that stuck to their boats and piled up in the garbage bags they used to collect it.
Suddenly out of the darkening sky a prop transport plane appeared, trailing a silky mist. As the plane flew over, TJ says, the mist floated down, burning their eyes and skin and causing several men to choke and gag. They poured water on themselves to clean the toxic liquid off their skin and headed back to their port in Bayou La Batre as fast as possible. TJ says they were all coughing, and soon developed headaches and rashes.
“The plane probably didn’t see us because it was getting dark,” TJ says. “But that’s just the way it was out there. We were getting sprayed all the time.”
That spray was part of nearly 2 million gallons of dispersant chemicals, called Corexit, that BP used to break up the oil before it reached the shore. Corexit was used in unprecedented amounts, both underwater at the wellhead and on the surface, even though little research had been done on its human health effects and the U.K. had banned it due to concerns about its toxic impact on marine life. Coast Guard and Environmental Protection Agency officials approved the use of Corexit anyway, thinking it was better to break up the oil into tiny particles that might decompose at sea, rather than allowing it to flow into pristine marshes where it would be more difficult to clean up.
Today, two of TJ’s cousins who worked on those boats are dead from throat and stomach cancer. TJ’s wife, Etta Venice, died of cancer in 2015. He blames the oil and chemical dispersants for contributing to their deaths, and says he still has rashes, headaches and severe breathing problems that make it hard to walk and hunt. “The cleanup workers used to pile up oiled boom right by our front yard,” he says. “They would come in and use the bathroom. My wife was exposed too.”
TJ says when he asks doctors if the oily mix could have caused their illnesses, he just gets blank stares. “The doctors are scared to get involved,” he says. “You can tell that when you talk to them.”
TJ’s story, unfortunately, is not news in the Gulf. I know because I was based in the Louisiana bayou in 2010 and 2011, reporting for the Natural Resources Defense Council on fisher communities in four states hit hard by the largest offshore oil spill in U.S. history. During the height of the spill, I too was sprayed by a chemical dispersant from a plane that flew overhead as I ate lunch in a Venice, Louisiana, marina, ground zero for the thousands of National Guard, police and cleanup workers who gathered to fight the unprecedented oily assault. I will never forget the fine mist that spewed from the plane and settled on our clothes, stinging our skin like bites from hundreds of tiny invisible insects.
In the eight years since, I’ve talked to countless residents who have complained about a host of ailments they link to Corexit, including breathing problems, rashes, headaches, memory loss, bloody discharges and now high rates of cancer. Few people at the time bought the industry line that dispersants were as safe as Dawn dish soap. Now a growing body of scientific research is strengthening their suspicions.
While there’s not yet clear evidence of a relationship between Corexit and cancer, at least three major health studies in the past year have suggested the chemicals used to break up oil spills into tiny droplets made the oily mix more toxic to workers and residents.
In September, a massive, ongoing National Institutes of Health study of 30,000 oil cleanup workers linked chemical dispersants to a variety of symptoms, including coughing, wheezing, tightness in the chest and burning in the eyes, nose, throat and lungs.
A Johns Hopkins study published last month showed chemical dispersants can turn oil into a toxic mist that can travel for up to 50 miles, posing increased hazards for those who breathe the tiny compounds into their lungs.
And a study of thousands of Coast Guard personnel who responded to the spill linked dispersant exposure to acute respiratory problems.
This powerful research is too late to prevent the chronic health problems that may have led to the deaths of people who participated in the oil cleanup. But it confirms that the government and BP have not done enough to help or compensate the thousands of people of limited means who are still suffering.
Dr. Michael Robichaux of Raceland, Louisiana ― one of the few doctors who specializes in treating people for conditions related to chemical dispersant and oil exposure ― says he believes his patients’ symptoms are similar to the illnesses of veterans exposed to toxic chemicals and nerve agents during the 1991 Gulf War. “Nobody is doing anything to manage the problem,” he says. “No one is being compensated for the sickness they still have today and who will be impacted by this for the rest of their lives.”
That’s what bothers scientist Wilma Subra, a Louisiana researcher who in 1999 won a MacArthur “genius grant” for her work on toxic chemical exposure in Louisiana. After the Deepwater disaster, Subra worked closely with NIH to set up the 10-year oil worker study, but she is frustrated that more isn’t being done to help people get treatment from the oil and chemical dispersant mix. The vast majority of the record settlements paid by BP were put to use on environmental cleanup and to mitigate economic loss. Little money was set aside to help the people now facing long-term health problems.
“They never gave workers and residents access to health care that they could count on,” Subra says. “I’m still getting calls from people with respiratory problems, memory loss, organ failure and who’ve lost jobs and can no longer function. These are very sick people and there’s nowhere to send them. Most of them can’t afford health care either.”
While residents fight for medical attention, many say their livelihoods in the fishing industry are still severely hurt by exposure to toxic oil and dispersants. Those who used to make a living fishing close to shore, where much of the oil and dispersants settled, say the fisheries continue to be affected. From Alabama to Louisiana, fishermen report that crab, oyster and shrimp catches have declined and have yet to fully recover.
Kindra Arnesen, a board member of the Louisiana Shrimp Association, says the close-in catches are down at least a third from normal, making it hard for fishermen to recover from the disaster eight years ago. Her husband, David, is still experiencing headaches and memory loss after working on the cleanup. “They sprayed the oil with dispersants to knock it down in the water so we can’t see it,” she says. “But the shrimp and bottom feeders know it’s there. And we’re still paying the price for that.”
Trisha Springstead has heard hundreds of these stories. A Florida-based nurse, Springstead has worked with law firms to interview people across the Gulf affected by the oil spill. She has seen families ripped apart by serious illness and death, and once-proud fishermen who have lost their livelihoods and what remains of their fishing communities. “My real question is this: Where was the government when we were at war with the oil spill in the Gulf?” she says. “Unfortunately, these people have been the collateral damage.”
Alarmingly, eight years after the Deepwater Horizon explosion, little has changed in terms of how the government responds to massive offshore oil spills. Corexit is still listed on the EPA’s list of acceptable chemical dispersants. There have been some congressional attempts to investigate its effects, but neither the Obama nor the Trump administrations have done anything to regulate dispersants ― even though their dangers are known, as documented in a thorough 2015 Government Accountability Project report. (Representatives for BP did not respond to a request for comment for this column.)
If a similar disaster were to happen today, it’s likely dispersant chemicals like Corexit would be used again to sink the oil and make it invisible ― transferring the health threats to first responders, residents and the environment. Out of sight, out of mind.
But the oil spill is still very much on the minds of Gulf fishermen like TJ Johnson, who says his small community is sick and left with a damaged fishery. “If they didn’t spray the stuff, we would have gotten the oil off the surface,” Johnson says. “The dispersant put the oil on the bottom. That’s what got us.”