"Merle Savage was an "outdoors person" who found joy in the big things Mother Nature had to offer. She climbed Alaska's mountains and hiked the Grand Canyon. But then the big spill hit, and there would be no more climbing, no more hiking, and very little joy. As a cleanup worker in the aftermath of the Exxon Valdez disaster, Savage says she breathed crude- and dispersant-laced mist for weeks. (This photograph speaks for itself.) She was healthy for age fifty — she looked healthy — but soon experienced crippling health problems that have lasted for two decades: coughing spells, violent diarrhea, pneumonia, obstructed blood vessels. Her liver cirrhosis onset baffled doctors. "We were all coughing and vomiting for months," says Savage, who had no prior history of drinking or smoking and did not wear a respirator during the cleanup. "We thought it was the flu. Exxon told us crude oil was non-toxic and we believed them."
She has limited legal recourse — a court sealed Exxon's medical records until 2023, she says — but now, twenty-one years later, her primary concern is not herself. Savage's "quest," and that of several environmental activists and locals taking a hard look at the aftershocks of the 2010 disaster, has become protecting the health of her modern counterparts in the Gulf of Mexico, who have been exposed to a variation of the same dispersant — and even more toxic oil. Because she doesn't want any of them to live her waking nightmare, and no one wants the BP spill to become for local volunteers and fisherman what 9/11 became for workers at the World Trade Center.
A hundred cleanup workers in Louisiana and Alabama have reported chest pains, skin-and-eye irritation, nose bleeds, stomach problems, nausea, and cognitive disruption, which medical experts believe is just the beginning. Last week a group of Louisiana fishermen sued BP and dispersant manufacturer Nalco over toxicity concerns. For the thousands who have already been exposed, it could already be too late. "The average age of a person working in Valdez was fifty-one and they're mostly dead now," says Arlen Braud, the attorney representing the Louisiana plaintiffs. "One of my clients had severe migraines and respiratory problems after traveling near the dispersants. It's so arrogant: a UK company using a chemical banned in the UK for endangering the food chain." According to Braud, BP is "telling workers 'you can't have lawyers and talk to us,'" possibly because "lawyers might warn people about the health effects ten years down the road."
BP claims that air quality is acceptable and respirators are unnecessary (based on decades-old OSHA standards that its director decries as "outrageously out of date"), and Nalco defends its product as "a safe, effective, and critical tool in mitigating additional damage in the Gulf," despite conflicting messages from the EPA. But Louisiana residents with their hands both literally and figuratively in the oil remain deeply skeptical of BP's response. "The only people getting sick are the ones cleaning up the spill," says Jim Gossen, CEO of Louisiana Foods-Global Seafood Source, who owns a beach house in Grand Isle. "My friend's brother-in-law was sick for days; he said dispersants were sprayed ten miles from their shrimp boat. The deckhand threw up blood in the hospital — they must have had dispersants in their blood — but I can't imagine BP would admit it."
Wilma Subra, a Louisiana chemist who regularly meets with federal officials about the spill, testified before a congressional committee that workers have been forced to handle crude oil with their bare hands, and "[t]hose fishermen who attempted to wear respirators while working were threatened to be fired by BP due to the workers using respirators." (BP insists that it provides respirators and hazmat gear upon request.) What's more, BP-associated companies offer workers a four-hour safety course — as opposed to the typical forty-hour course — that reportedly fails to address "chemical inhalation, the health effects of dispersants, and the risks of direct contact with weathered crude oil," according to ProPublica.org, paraphrasing an official at HHS.
A Florida construction worker, who requested anonymity because he fears retribution from BP, confirmed the lack of safety training. "The class was about how to put your hardhat, boots, and glasses on," he says. "The trainer was essentially a motivational speaker trying to get us excited about the money and the free lunch. It was a joke. There was not one word about inhalation or absorption; it was skipped over completely. They said we don't want a respirator because we aren't trained to use it, and the permit card had a disclaimer about how the training is in no way comprehensive. I thought 'Holy shit, this just ain't right.'" Last Friday the Coast Guard cracked down on a four-hour training program offered in Jean Lafitte, Louisiana, according to marine toxicologist Dr. Riki Ott. "It only took them two months," Ott scoffs. "That's a tiny step in the right direction."
After studying cleanup workers from the Exxon Valdez spill, Ott is convinced that today's Gulf fishermen are not merely risking their short-range health. "The Exxon Valdez oil was considerably less toxic than Louisiana sweet crude, and it wreaked havoc on any life forms that encountered it," she says, including brain lesions, coma, and death. "We are setting up here for a giant human tragedy — decades of misery — especially if a storm or hurricane spreads it to normal everyday people onshore." Ott claims that Exxon exploited OSHA loopholes, such as a two-year filing limit even though overexposure symptoms can take decades to appear (another loophole: rejecting early claims as negligible cold and flu symptoms), to deny medical coverage to cleanup workers. "Now BP is using the loopholes. People are not supposed to be getting sick, but it's happening."
Savage, the Exxon Valdez worker who has been sick for decades, will continue to share her story, even if only a fraction of Gulf fishermen will hear it. "These 18-year-old kids are throwing away their lives for fifteen dollars per hour to clean up the oil," she says. "That's the price on their lives, and there shouldn't be a price."