BP's Toxic Gulf Coast Legacy: When Covering Up a Crime Takes Precedence Over Human Health

Most media would allow you to believe that that disaster ended years ago. But if you were an oil cleanup worker, fisher or resident on the Gulf coast in the oil impact zone, the human health disaster is ongoing, and there appears to be no end in sight.

A boat skims oil spilled after the Deepwater Horizon well blowout in the Gulf of Mexico in April 2010.
Photo Credit: NOAA/Flickr

On April 20, 2010, BP's Deepwater Horizon oil rig exploded. Over the next 87 days, it gushed at least 200 million gallons of crude oil into the Gulf of Mexico, creating the worst human-made environmental disaster in US history and afflicting the coasts of Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and Florida.

Less than one year after the disaster began, I spoke with Fritzi Presley, a Gulf Coast resident in Long Beach, Mississippi, who was already very sick at the time. Her doctor was treating her for bronchitis, extreme headaches, memory loss and other symptoms which mirrored those of hundreds of other sick fishers and cleanup workers I had interviewed.

Her blood tests revealed m-Xylene, p-Xylene, hexane and ethylbenzene in her body -- chemicals that MacArthur Award-winning toxicologist Wilma Subra had already shown to be present in BP's crude oil. The acute impacts include those which Presley was experiencing, among many others, like damage to the nervous system, nausea, skin rashes, vision and balance problems, and ultimately, possibly even death.

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"I started having respiratory problems, a horrible skin rash, headaches, nosebleeds, low energy and trouble sleeping," Presley's daughter, Daisy Seal, told me at the time. "And I now feel like I'm dying from the inside out."

Seal is still alive, but her mother died last year at the age of 62.

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Most media would allow you to believe that that disaster ended years ago. But if you were an oil cleanup worker, fisher or resident on the Gulf coast in the oil impact zone, the human health disaster is ongoing, and there appears to be no end in sight.

BP used two kinds of toxic chemical dispersants to sink the oil from the Deepwater Horizon disaster, Corexit 9500 and Corexit 9527, manufactured by Nalco Environmental Solutions. Approximately 770,000 gallons were injected at the wellhead while the oil gushed, while another million gallons were sprayed on the oil slick on the surface. Tens of thousands of cleanup workers, Coast Guard members, fishers and coastal residents were within range of the airborne chemicals, and many of them were sprayed directly with Corexit, which when mixed with crude, is 52 times more toxic than crude alone.

Other studies have also shown that dispersants are highly toxic to wildlife, including fish, crabs and even deep-sea coral. Other research has shown recently how dispersants hamper the growth of oil-eating bacteria, which of course, weakens nature's ability to clean up after a spill.

There have been at least three major health studies in the last year alone showing that Corexit only made the oil more toxic. An ongoing National Institutes of Health study of 30,000 oil cleanup workers linked the dispersants to symptoms including coughing, wheezing, tightness in the chest and burning in the eyes, nose, throat and lungs. Meanwhile, a recently published Johns Hopkins study showed how the dispersants can turn oil into a toxic mist that can travel up to 50 miles, penetrating human bodies along the way. Thousands of Coast Guard personnel who responded to the disaster were shown by a study to have their acute respiratory problems linked to the dispersants. There have been numerous studies on the chemicals' impacts on marine life, including one on how sperm whales have been harmed.

As astounding as those numbers are, they fail to tell the story of the human cost, much less the environmental catastrophe left in the wake of BP's disaster.

Here is a video of Presley, literally on her deathbed, telling the story of a fellow cleanup worker who got sepsis and died, as well as her and others' failed attempts to find one single doctor to attribute their ailments to BP's chemicals. Presley worked as long as she could until she could literally not make the walk to the beach.

Truthout spoke with Presley's very close friend, who asked that only her first name, Lana, be used. Shortly after the disaster began, Lana became involved in activism around the sick cleanup workers, which is how she met Presley.

"After the spill, she [Presley] would often walk down to the beach to assess the damages and talk to the cleanup workers," Lana said. "Like so many others, she was emotionally devastated."

Lana went on to tell of how she watched her dear friend become weaker from her ongoing exposure to BP's toxic airborne chemicals until she was unable to continue her beach walks. "She did have her blood tested for VOCs [volatile organic compounds from BP's oil] at one point," Lana said. "The results showed high levels of toxins known to be attributed to the signature of the oil and Corexit. No one knew of any successful treatments. Many professionals denied there was a connection."

Presley developed chronic shortness of breath and told Lana she was only able to take "little sips of air." In 2014, Lana went to visit her friend in person and found her to be far sicker than she had let on. Presley talked to Lana about the "log in her lung." Three days later, Lana talked her into going to the ER, where Presley was diagnosed with pleurisy and pneumonia.

As Presley's condition deteriorated, she was in and out of the hospital, and ultimately remained at home in hospice.

"I met a woman who was full of life in 2010, and over the next seven years, I saw that life slowly drain until she had no more breath to take," Lana told Truthout. "She had beat cancer. She had survived the death of her teenage son.... But she couldn't shake the damages that came with BP's oil and Corexit."

But Lana explained that Presley isn't the only person she knows who has succumbed to the effects of BP's chemicals.

"There are several that I know of who have died, and many others who suffer similar and worse symptoms, all easily attributed to exposures during the gulf oil spill and the 'cleanup' efforts," she said. "I personally know several who were not sick before the spill, yet, have been plagued with illness since."

An Ongoing Crisis

Activists remain busy seeking justice for victims of BP's disaster. Facebook pages have been created, and video testimonies of sick commercial fishers and oil cleanup workers are easy to find.

According to Jonathan Henderson, formerly with the Gulf Restoration Network and who now continues to work to help sick cleanup workers and fishers find compensation, more than 37,000 medical benefit claims have been submitted by cleanup workers, first responders and coastal residents, yet only a scant 40 of them have been paid for chronic conditions. And it gets worse.

"While the plaintiff's steering committee for this disaster walked away with between $350 and $700 million in fees and the claims administrator walked away with $155 million, all the victims who were compensated shared in only a $60 million payment," Henderson has written about the situation. "Those paid from that $60 million represent only a small fraction of the injured who helped in the cleanup and live in the designated impact zones."

And not a single case has gone to trial.

Jacob Boudreaux worked as a deck hand on a utility vessel pulling up containment boom that was soaked in oil for days on end, month after month. While his vision was great before the disaster, now on some days he struggles to see. It's the same with his lungs and skin, as he continues to have breathing issues, and his skin still suffers from rashes. He did not have insurance, so was unable to see his own doctor.

"I got a lot of oil on me, and that is why I'm sick," Boudreaux told Truthout.

"BP sent me to a doctor, but it was their doctor," he said. "They made me walk up and down a hall, took blood and urine, took some x-rays, but didn't tell me anything was wrong, and never gave me the paperwork from the samples they took."

Boudreaux said that "they always give me the runaround" whenever he attempts to acquire his test results.

"I worked that spill for more than six months," he said. "BP was supposed to give us all kinds of Tyvek suits and respirators, but they gave us water, Gatorade and baseball hats for the sun."

And now the only money he has received for his medical compensation claim is a scant $650, and that was only for the acute claim he filed from when he got sick on the boat. His long-term chronic claim has not been addressed, his lawyer recently told him he will have to wait three more years to possibly see any money, and he's already been fighting it for six years.

"My vision and lungs are not the same, and I suffered from headaches for a month straight, even when I was off the boat," Boudreaux concluded. "They have all the money in the bank, they just don't want to give it to any of us who it is owed."

In July 2015, the federal government and Gulf Coast states reached an $18.7 billion settlement agreement with BP for the disaster. However, the payments will be spread out over the next 18 years, according to BP, which actively worked to cut the amount down as low as possible. The federal government and BP previously reached a $4 billion settlement over criminal charges stemming from the accident, which killed 11 Deepwater Horizon workers.

Another man spoke with Truthout on condition of anonymity, given he has an ongoing lawsuit against BP. He was one of the first supervisor foremen for oil cleanup workers on the beaches of Alabama. He told Truthout that during their training, "nobody said anything about Corexit," and he currently has a pending lawsuit against BP for his illnesses.

He has suffered from chronic skin rashes, his hearing is nearly completely gone, his vision is now impaired, his short-term memory is shot, and he still has headaches and balance issues.

He also worked on a fishing boat contracted to haul oil boom into the backwaters, during which time he got covered in oil and was sprayed with Corexit from airplanes.

"I started having symptoms after I got into the oil cleanup program," the man told Truthout. "As soon as the sun set each day, the planes spraying the Corexit started spraying it all over us, and of course, we had no respirators. We got sprayed every night and every morning. I started having problems after that, and of course, I had no health insurance."

Like others, doctors he has seen in his area will not give him a diagnosis and refuse to link any of his ailments to BP's oil or Corexit. Meanwhile, his conditions persist, he finds it difficult to sleep at night because his skin rashes are "extremely bad," and he is struggling financially.

"They hired us to clean it up, and now we are high and dry," he added. "Now I'm sick and waiting on this lawsuit. I've got a lawsuit against BP, and they've strung it out for eight years now ... bottom line, they are hoping we will die."

"An Entire Population Was Compromised"

Trisha Springstead has been a registered nurse for four decades. Having worked in ICUs, ERs, in oncology and in cardiac units, she has seen it all. She has been involved in tracking the human health impacts of BP's disaster from the very beginning.

Truthout asked her how she would characterize the human health consequences of BP's ongoing disaster in the Gulf.

"This a catastrophe where lives and the health of an entire population was compromised in an effort to cover up a crime," Springstead said, referring to BP's work of sinking the oil with the dispersants, which knowingly exposed much of the coastal population to highly toxic chemicals. "Humans did not matter and covering up a crime took precedence over human health in order to salvage tourism and property values."

In 2015, National Institutes of Health sources estimated that 170,000 Gulf residents would die of spill-related illnesses over the next five years.

She refers to the cleanup workers as "collateral damage," and a study she was involved in about the human health impacts of the chemicals showed very high levels of BP's polycyclic hydrocarbons (crude oil) in the people they tested.

"Basically, the blood of the people was turning to gas and melting their cell walls, not to mention it was changing their DNA, creating cytotoxicity and genetic toxicity."

Springstead cited a study on the aforementioned sperm whales, which showed the dispersants' negative health impacts on them. The study, published in the journal Aquatic Toxicology, is titled "Chemical dispersants used in the Gulf of Mexico oil crisis are cytotoxic and genotoxic to sperm whale cells."

She told Truthout she had spoken to "numerous people" who had visited the National Institutes of Health (the agency conducting the ongoing study on the sick oil cleanup workers) who "were told to go home or take their children home because they were going to die."

During her more recent trips along the Gulf Coast to meet with sick people, she found "kidney, liver and lung cancers are rampant."

Springstead believes Fritzi Presley clearly died from BP's toxic chemicals, given that she lived just a few blocks from the coast and regularly went there to visit with the cleanup workers.

She attributes the visual impairments, breathing problems, skin rashes and massive uptick in cancer cases along the Gulf Coast to BP's chemicals.

"Had they not used those chemicals, let that oil rise to the surface, oxygenate and separate, then sent it to refineries, I don't believe it would have been nearly as bad as it is now," she added.

Similar to the cleanup worker who spoke with Truthout on condition of anonymity, Springstead believes BP is "stonewalling" when it comes to making the health claim payouts and is "waiting for these people to die."

Meanwhile, it is now more than eight years since BP's oil disaster began, and practically nothing has changed as far as how the government responds to offshore oil disasters.

Nalco's Corexit remains listed on the EPA's list of acceptable chemical dispersants. Despite ample documentation of their dangerous impacts, the Obama administration did nothing to regulate the use of dispersants, and of course, neither has the current administration.

"If l could reach out to the people who live along the Gulf, and who vacation along the Gulf, I would tell them the water isn't safe," Lana warned. "I would tell them to go easy on the seafood. I would tell them about my friends and what has happened to them. I would tell them the oil is still there."

Lana added that she would warn everyone of the possibility of being exposed to BP's chemicals across much of her region and tell them not to go into the water. "I would tell them not to let their precious children dig too deep in the sand where the oil is still buried ... people here just want their lives back," she concluded. "It's not over. Big oil companies lie, and they have very deep pockets. They spin lies and twist the truth, then the mainstream media complies by sending it out to the world."

There are enough sick oil cleanup workers that an already massive and growing petition exists demanding they have their day in court for what happened to them. Meanwhile, tens if not hundreds of thousands of people across the four Gulf states in BP's impact zone are sick and possibly dying, and there is no end in sight.

A Deadly Mix

As if BP's disaster weren't enough, according to the Gulf Restoration Network, an environmental NGO, 330,000 gallons of oil are spilled in Louisiana alone every year. There is a fire every three days on an offshore oil platform, three workers die annually and every year in the Gulf, 2,100 oil and chemical spills are reported to the Coast Guard.

Even this April, a massive spill of heavy fuel oil fouled the Mississippi River during the French Quarter Festival in New Orleans, which was ironically sponsored by Chevron, reminding people there how deeply the oil industry is embedded in their lives.

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Dahr Jamail, a Truthout staff reporter, is the author of The Will to Resist: Soldiers Who Refuse to Fight in Iraq and Afghanistan (Haymarket Books, 2009, and Beyond the Green Zone: Dispatches From an Unembedded Journalist in Occupied Iraq (Haymarket Books, 2007).