Nine Years After BP Spill, Some Cleanup Workers Still Feel Sting of Dispersants

Federal officials charged with regulating the use of the toxic chemicals have been dragging their heels.

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  • Crude oil floats on the surface of the Gulf of Mexico in the wake of the Deepwater Horizon Spill.

    Visual: Benjamin Lowy / Getty Images


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Nine years ago, I traveled down to the bustling Louisiana bayou fishing town of Venice, where the road south along the Mississippi River comes to an end. I joined colleagues from the Natural Resources Defense Council, a national environmental policy group, to investigate the blowout of the titanic Deepwater Horizon rig some 40 miles offshore. The bayou area had turned into a veritable war zone as an army of Coast Guard, National Guard, state police, and oil cleanup personnel converged to address the fallout from the massive rig explosion that killed 11 workers and busted a drilling pipe a mile below the surface, allowing 200 million gallons of reddish-brown crude to spew into the sea.

I can remember riding offshore with local fishermen and seeing their expressions turn from curiosity to fear as we found the thick, nauseating slicks floating toward shore. They realized their livelihoods would be turned upside down by the powerful explosion. It was America’s greatest oil spill disaster, a catastrophe that left a tarry trail of toxic oil and dead marine life across four states. And for many people who live in the region, the calamity is still not over.

Jorey Danos is one of them. A construction worker from the Louisiana town of Thibodeaux, Danos worked on the armadas of small boats — the Vessels of Opportunity — paid to help clean up the seemingly unending waves of crude. Above them, transport planes flew, spraying thousands of gallons of Corexit, a chemical oil dispersant designed to break up floating oil patches and sink them into the sea, so they would not pollute the marshes and shorelines. Danos says the planes sometimes flew near his boat, their mist making it hard to breathe. He says he was not issued a respirator. Boils broke out on his neck and he developed headaches. Eventually he suffered from seizures that forced him to stop work.

Danos is one of thousands of workers and residents who reported health complications following exposure to dispersants during the Deepwater Horizon cleanup. Yet, in the decade since the oil spill, government agencies have set no major rules governing the use of the toxic chemicals. And with President Trump rolling back drilling safety regulations and pushing for new drilling in areas like the East Coast and the Arctic, the matter has taken on new urgency: The next big oil spill may be just around the corner.

We know far more about the dispersants now than we did in 2010. At the time, very little effectiveness and safety testing had been conducted on the oil cleanup chemicals. Reports circulated that Corexit was as safe as Dawn dish soap and that its ingredients, initially kept secret by the manufacturer, Nalco Holdings, were also found in ice-cream and toothpaste. “We believe Corexit 9500 is very safe,” a Nalco chemist insisted after the blowout happened. BP agreed. It even bought a third of the global Corexit supply at the time.

But experts knew dispersants contained toxic ingredients. EPA regulators grew concerned that the Corexit spray might put first responders and residents at risk. The agency ordered BP to switch to a less toxic dispersant early in the spill, but BP resisted, saying the chemicals were an effective way to fight the growing oil disaster. EPA ultimately backed down as more oil poured ashore, a conclusion that then EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson called one of the “toughest decisions” she ever made.

For good reason. By the time the blowout stopped three months later, BP had released an unprecedented amount of chemical dispersant into the Gulf. Close to two million gallons of Corexit were sprayed on top of mile-long oil slicks and — for the first time — below the sea into the wellhead. It was a never-before-tried attempt to prevent oil from washing into the pristine marshes and public beaches, one that involved tradeoffs for organisms that live or feed on the seafloor and for the workers involved in the cleanup.

As I traveled across the Gulf, residents and cleanup workers complained bitterly of health problems they linked to oil and dispersants, including respiratory ailments, heart-palpitations, headaches, memory loss, skin rashes, and bloody sores. Local physicians like Dr. Michael Robichaux, working with the Louisiana Environmental Action Network, began treating people suffering from distinct neurological problems they linked to Corexit and oil exposure.

I, too, was inadvertently sprayed by a plane trailing droplets of dispersants near a Venice marina, an invisible mist that felt like stinging nettles on my skin. More than a month after BP capped the Deepwater Horizon well and claimed it had stopped spraying dispersants, I reported on a cache of Corexit containers stored by an Alabama public dock that locals said was still being used to spray on oil patches close to shore.

Today, the science on the health effects of dispersants is catching up. A 2013 study found that Corexit made oil 52-times more toxic to certain marine life. In 2017, a landmark National Institutes of Environmental Health Sciences study of tens of thousands of oil cleanup workers found that those exposed to dispersants had increased risks of symptoms like coughing, wheezing, and burning eyes and lungs. A 2018 Johns Hopkins study found that oil dispersants increased the concentration of ultrafine particles, which can travel miles through the air and penetrate human lungs. And last year a Coast Guard study, based on self-reporting from 4,800 service personnel, found a relationship between increased exposure to dispersants and the likelihood of symptoms including coughing and shortness of breath. “There’s clearly something going on with acute symptoms,” says Jennifer Rusiecki, an epidemiologist who’s been studying data from sickened Coast Guard personnel. “The longer-term effects we don’t know yet.”

In April, however, a panel of the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) that included industry scientists weighed in with a new report, downplaying previous studies that had found detrimental health and environmental effects. The report stated that dispersants can be a “useful tool for oil spill response.” But it also noted that oil spill studies focusing on human health were “surprisingly” just beginning, and that future oil spills need better health monitoring and testing protocols to protect cleanup workers and residents.

Many say there is plenty of evidence to act now. In March, the UC Berkley Environmental Law Clinic announced that it intended to sue the EPA on behalf of a number of grassroots groups for failing to update oil and dispersant regulations. The agency had planned to overhaul testing requirements for dispersants in 2015, but delays plagued the program, and it now estimates that it won’t have new guidelines in place at least until 2021. Given the Trump administration’s plans for increased offshore drilling and safety regulation cutbacks, that may be too late for the next oil spill.

Shanna Devine, a Public Citizen worker health and safety advocate spent years investigating oil dispersants for the Government Accountability Project (GAP), and she summed up the problem in Congressional testimony in March. “Nearly a decade after the BP disaster, we have mounting evidence on the health impacts of dispersants on workers and exposed communities, and yet no action by the government to ban their use in U.S. disaster responses.”

Meanwhile, workers like Jorey Danos, who submitted an affidavit to the GAP, continue to feel the sting of dispersants. Danos now receives disability payments and says his family life has been destroyed by headaches, memory problems, and seizures that plague him day and night. He relies on friends and family for help, but says he’s received no compensation from BP. “Out of sight, out of mind,” is how he describes the company’s attitude toward him and others suffering from chemical dispersant exposure.

More than nine years after the greatest oil spill disaster in U.S. history, many of the safety regulations put in place after the horrific BP disaster are at risk. We can’t let the oil industry write the rules. It’s time for agencies to put public health over industry profits and protect coastal residents and the people who fight oil spills in the future.


Rocky Kistner is an independent multimedia reporter in Washington, D.C. During the BP oil spill, he worked for seven months in the Louisiana fishing village of Buras, staffing the Gulf Resource Center for the Natural Resources Defense Council and blogging for The Huffington Post. His blog is TheRockyFiles.com.

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10 comments / Join the Discussion

    Ever since the Deepwater Horizon Accident and the utterly insane decision by BP to dump tens of thousands of gallons of Corexit into the Gulf to ‘cover up’ the spill, I have not eaten and continue to refuse to eat any Gulf Coast Shrimp or any other seafood caught or produced in the Gulf of Mexico. Corexit contains know carcinogens which cause Cancer, and these chemical compounds are now thoroughly embedded in the food chain of the same. BP has turned the Gulf of Mexico into another Love Canal.

    STAY ORDER! That is what has dictated our destiny as we and our families suffer. We are not permitted to try any PI cases because one judge holds the power to delay our trials until he sees fit. We were given the option to opt out and pursue legal action because the monetary amounts in the settlement were a joke compared to the cost of losing our health and livelihoods. Now we sit and wait 9 years later all because of Barbier. It’s criminal and wrong. Our rights have been trampled by the courts stay order. Open the door so we can have a shot at recovery!

    pamclay@yahoo.com I have a friend in gulf shores Alabama lives on the bay caught fish and lived a clean healthy life. He now has cancer of the esophagus and is undergoing treatment and fighting for his life Took it 9 years to catch up with him but it did Accountability by BP, EPA, DEQ etc…. that’s what is needed now

    I was involved in response decisions after the Exxon Valdez oil spill in 1989. Exxon wanted to use Corexit and when we asked for trials to demonstrate whether it was toxic to salmon. They balked and performed a few half-assed experiments. Fortunately, we were able to deny its use despite enormous pressure by Exxon. Your article reinforces the rightness of that decision.

    Thank you for putting out the truth Rocky. I work for a law firm that represents residents and workers with chronic health conditions related to exposure and the struggle is real! Cancer and neurological disorders are commonplace among those exposed. The truth must come out and Corexit must be banned.

    You know what really crazy about this whole ordeal is the fact that the ones most affected from the oil spill get no compensation while the 124.96 million dollars goes to the attorneys who are representing us who are injured. Just a little bit up front would the workers out.
    I could go on and on about this topic but not one of the companies would believe any of the facts that they are responsible for ruining a lot of life’s and life forms. But I will stop here.

    Same here. Lawyers get all the money. I have downs law group and I feel like they not doing what it takes to get people paid. They get the bulk of the money I received a check for$700 and the lawyers got the rest about 3 years ago but I am still dealing with chronic issues. Being constantly told to keep going to the Dr. It’s ridiculous.i have gotten to the point to where I’ve stopped calling and checking. Just praying God makes something happen in my favor.

    I too was a first responder to the oil spill and I too am awaiting compensation for my health issues relating to the oil spill. If it wasn’t for the VA Health Care that I have been receiving since the spill who knows if I would be here.

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