A never-before-heard first hand account sheds new light on the clean-up of the BP oil spill.
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[Archival: Interior humming of Coast Guard airplane. Crackling speech from pilot’s headset]
Dan Leone (host):
From Western Sound and APM Studios, I’m Dan Leone.
Coast Guard 2:
This is Team One. With a good fire going.
This is Ripple.
Coast Guard 2:
Don, what burn is this?
Coast Guard 3:
Coast Guard 2:
This is burn number 35. On, uh, Thursday, May the 19th.
The Coast Guard and BP didn’t only use booms and dispersants to get rid of oil slicks – they also burned them. Controlled burns happened 50 miles off the coast of Louisiana, near the site of the Deepwater Horizon blowout. Ground zero.
Coast Guard 2:
And, uh, we're circling and main–monitoring the, uh, the area, surface area of the fire.
We got our hands on footage of these burns. What you see is filmed from the inside of an airplane. The camera’s aiming out a small window, filming the surface of the ocean, where a tornado of fire is spiraling in the center of a jet black plume so large the frame doesn't capture the extent of it.
Coast Guard 1:
This is a very spectacular fire.
The man filming this sounds nonchalant. But to me – a layman – what he’s capturing looks like a mushroom cloud in suspended animation. The smoke is so thick that the airplane shudders as it passes through it.
Coast Guard 2:
It's a little rough when you go through the smoke plume. Uh, there's some turbulence there.
Down below, on the water, you can see two white boats. They’re connected by a line of boom attached to the rear of each vessel. They’re working in unison to collect a giant pool of oil.
Coast Guard 2:
They will ignite and probably burn, uh, all afternoon and into the night. That's the plan.
[Coast Guard plane ambi fades out]
The burn was so intense. It was bad because you didn't know what was going to happen. The wind would switch – and the wind could switch at any time – and it would push the heat more on us and all.
This is one of the men who worked on in situ burn teams at ground zero. He was a commercial shrimper, put out of work by the spill, now hired by BP to capture the oil for burning.
My name is John Wunstell Jr., and I'm well known as Weenie. That's my nickname.
It took us months to find John Wunstell Jr. We were trying to locate cleanup workers who fell dangerously ill and were medevaced to a hospital on May 26th, 2010. At the time, a high ranking Coast Guard official suggested the cause of their illness was the Louisiana heat. BP's CEO speculated one possible cause might be food poisoning.
We asked John Wunstell for his side of the story. He had to think for a while about committing to an interview. He’s been fighting post-traumatic stress for years, and wasn’t sure if he could relive the experience. He’s never spoken publicly about what happened to him.
But in the end, he decided he wanted to talk.
In some ways, John’s story echoed conversations I had with other cleanup workers. He reported minimal training…
We just trained one, one morning for about four hours at the Coast Guard station looking at films and all.
Minimal protective gear…
We had gloves, some big gloves that my deckhands would put on, and a helmet and some safety glasses. That was it.
And with regard to dispersants…
When you were being trained, did they say, “Hey, just so you know, we're gonna be spraying a chemical?” Were, were you ever initiated in that way or no?
No. They didn't tell us nothing about dispersants. We didn't know nothing about it.
But unlike the others I spoke to, John was witness to what was going on at ground zero.
John’s boat was named Rami’s Wish, after his daughter.
At that time she was young and she told me, she says, “Daddy,” I said, “What?” She said, “You can name the boat Rami’s Wish. I wish y'all named the boat after me. So call it the Rami’s Wish.”
When John and his deckhands were prepping Rami’s Wish to go out on the burn job, BP gave them another crewman; a safety monitor. From what I gathered, the safety monitor was only provided to the burn teams.
John says this safety guy had a large piece of equipment with him. To test for toxicity in the air.
That big monitor was something that was real nice and all, but he didn't even know how to work it. He didn't know how to put it on.
John says the air quality monitor was taken away from the safety man and given to another vessel. John’s crew was left with a simpler, smaller, handheld device.
It was a little chicken shit thing that really, that I mean didn't make no sense, and he didn't know how to work that too good either.
John and his crew worked out on the water – 50 miles out – without returning to shore, for days at a time.
We was all in that 7, 8,000 foot of water. You couldn't put the anchor so you just drift out there. That's what you really did. You didn't go nowheres and hide. I mean you was at ground zero and you couldn't leave.
In the cover of night, the boat drifted in whatever direction the waves took it. One crewman would stay awake, making sure they didn't drift too far away, as the others slept. John says he would hear the humming of planes overhead...
I got up and I went outside to go use the restroom, and uh, my deckhand came in and he told me, he said, “Man, the humidity is heavy and all,” and he was soaking wet. And when I realized I walked out the same time the plane was passing and I got soaked.
John says the crew on Rami's Wish was sprayed by dispersants from the airplane.
The plane’s spraying us and I ran to the front and called the command boat to let 'em know that the plane was spraying us and I gave him a longitude and latitude where I was at.
John says the planes didn’t spray him again after he made that call.
But when the sun rose the following day – he and his entire crew were falling apart.
I mean it was ridiculous. The safety man went outside. He was passed out on a chair and then one of the deckhands got up. He had went laid down, he had a bad headache. He said he couldn't take it no more. Then I told him, I said, “Man,” I said, “I don't know what's going on. I'm feeling bad.” I'm telling you it's like we was dying. I ain't gonna lie to you. It just– it was bad. I never felt like that in my life.
John was sluggish, his mind was groggy, his thoughts were scrambled, he drifted in and out of lucidity.
The next thing he knew, a supply boat had pulled up alongside Rami's Wish to check on him. They blew the horn to get his attention.
It woke me up and I called him and he said, “What's going on?”
He said, “It sound like you're sick.” I said, “We all sick on the boat, man.” I said, “We don't know what's going on.”
The crew on the supply boat called for the command boat to attend to John and his crew.
Right away when they got me on the command boat and all, they started giving me oxygen and all and then next thing you know they were sending me in on a helicopter to West Jeff Hospital there. They thought I was having a heart attack.
John gave the exact dates that he says he was sprayed by the aircraft.
We got sprayed that Wednesday and the Thursday night, we got sprayed real hard. They was dumping so much dispersants on us them two nights, it was unreal.
That was when I realized John was medevaced to the hospital on the 28th of May, not the 26th… which I really didn't get. Because the Coast Guard made this announcement the day before John was medevaced:
Good afternoon. Yesterday, seven crewmen aboard working Vessel of Opportunity vessels were medevaced to West Jefferson Hospital after several of them reported experiencing nausea, dizziness, headaches, and chest pains while performing offshore response operations.
John wasn’t one of those seven crewmen. It appears that what happened to John and his crew was actually one of multiple emergencies that occurred over those three days in May.
And I was wondering why so many health incidents happened on those three days specifically?
And John Wunstell actually provided an explanation. On May 26th and 27th, he says there was an urgency to disperse and disappear as much oil as possible.
Because the next day, the Friday, the president came and he was flying over. And they didn't want to, they didn't wanna see no more oil.
John says his superiors were anticipating a presidential flyover on May 28th. He says they wanted the oil gone before President Obama got his eyes on it.
We checked – and the president was in the Gulf on May 28th, 2010. News articles covered his visit, and a flyover is mentioned. President Obama reportedly flew in a helicopter from New Orleans to Port Fourchon – about 60 miles south – and he did survey the spill’s impact on the bayous and shorelines.
The president also held a press conference the same day, in Grand Isle, Louisiana.
To the people of the Gulf Coast: I know that you've weathered your fair share of trials and tragedy. I know there have been times where you've wondered if you're being asked to face them alone. I'm here to tell you that you're not alone. You will not be abandoned.
You will not be left behind. The cameras at some point may leave. The media may get tired of the story, but we will not. We are on your side, and we will see this through.
The same day that President Obama was delivering these remarks, John Wunstell reports arriving at West Jefferson Hospital in a bad way.
We was waitin’ and they had a big blue tent that was set up in the parking lot where the emergency room was at.
His account of what happened next matches what we heard last episode from Doug Blanchard, who went to the same hospital two days earlier on the 26th. John was approached by people in hazmat suits…
They made me stand up, strip my clothes off and all – they took all my clothes and everything – and then they started washing me down with ice cold water. I'm talking about real ice cold water.
…his clothing was confiscated.
And then they turned around and put me through some cubicles and they'd have a little mess of stuff they would spray on me. Then they'd move me to another cubicle and they would spray something else. And then they moved me to another one and same thing till I got to the end of it. And they did that to me twice, three times. I remember I was in a daze most of the time. They had to put me in the wheelchair the second time because I couldn’t even, I couldn't even stand up. And to this day, I don't know what they sprayed on me. I'm gonna be honest with you.
He spent days in the hospital, weak, but recovering. And that's when John made a decision.
And all my other friends was doing the job, and I just didn't want them to go through what I went through.
He was one of the first cleanup workers to take legal action against BP. And this move wasn’t popular among some fishermen.
I got cursed out about it. And it was hard, but I did it. And some understand and some still holds a grudge against me. ’Cause of what I did.
John, why do you think they're, they’re holding a grudge against you?
Because they was money hungry. They all thought they was going to be millionaires. They all thought they was going to come out with millions and millions of dollars with this, and that's the whole problem there. They got so money hungry. It was unreal.
Remember the fishermen were reliant on the Vessels of Opportunity program. So anything that might end the program could have been viewed as a threat. And it should be noted that oftentimes, BP paid the VOO workers more than they made as fishermen. I heard a report of four times as much.
What happened in this situation – friends being pitted against friends over money – is a common phenomenon in the aftermath of disasters. Communities buckle under the stress and they break down.
So you felt a lot of pressure to kind of be quiet about what was happening to you?
Yeah, I just kind of, I stayed to myself and all. I used to be a friendly person. I had a lot of friends and it's not like that no more.
John's clothing wasn't the only thing he reported being confiscated. BP took possession of Rami's Wish – his boat.
We were told that when John eventually got access to it, the vessel was so contaminated with benzene, an inspector declared it a total loss. BP did compensate him for Rami’s Wish after he filed a claim, though.
John doesn’t believe his health scare was a result of food poisoning. The heat was bad the day he was medevaced, but he doesn’t think that was the cause either. John maintains that his sickness was a result of his exposure.
His health continued to decline in the years afterwards – severe memory problems, cognitive difficulties, fluid buildup behind his heart, and then, at the end of 2012…
I went to the hospital and they did an x-ray on my chest, and that's when they found a little spot, that's when they found out I had cancer.
He was diagnosed with Lymphoma non-hodgkins. The same cancer as Caleb Breaux, who you've heard from earlier in this series. John's treatment was aggressive.
They had hit me pretty hard with the chemo, and they hit me hard with the radiation.
After a hard battle, John is in remission now.
And I'm lucky that I'm, I'm here because the doctor that did my radiation and all the chemo there that was taking care of me, the cancer doctor, he just told me he was gonna save my life and he saved my life. [voice breaks] I’m lucky that I’m here.
[Music: transition, thoughtful]
There was a gallows humor in a lot of the conversations I had in Louisiana. People would talk about horrible things, and somehow, they'd manage to laugh. And I'd laugh too. From Company Canal, to Lockport, to New Orleans, to New Iberia, to Baton Rouge. I spent more time laughing with people than you might expect given what we were discussing.
Clint Guidry, the man who gave us John Wunstell's name, explained this laughter.
The Cajun way of overcoming hardship is to make a joke out of it and laugh, you know, be with good people and, you know, laugh. Make a joke out of it. That's the way we've been surviving for many, many generations.
Talking to John Wunstell was sobering. I got the sense that he didn't have it in him to joke around about any of this. And although I was a complete stranger to Louisiana, that seemed significant to me.
Could you maybe describe, what is it like to live emotionally and mentally for the years after this, this thing that you've been through? What is it like to be in your head?
Oh man. My mind is always working. It's like, I don't know what to do from one minute to the next minute. My life is not the same. I can't work no more like I used to work. A lot of times I'm depressed. I'm gonna be honest with you. Sometimes I feel like killing myself because I can't do what I used to do. And another thing it’s like, I’ll go somewheres, it's like I'm not wanted and I feel like I'm not wanted on this earth and I was, you know, I was a well-known person and it's like everybody looks at me like I'm crazy. It’s bringing me more to death. That's how I take it. I got death a lot in my mind because all this. I'm just tired of my life the way it is. I can't live like this. It's like I told my wife, if I'd have known that I would've never went on the job. I would have never would –
I'd rather lose my boat than go through what I'm going through. All I'm doing is hurting my family and my friends. [voice breaking] I lost them all and it's not the same. I think about it a lot. When I think about it a lot, I just say to myself why I did the job. And I realize what it was. Everybody was in a bind at the time, and everybody was doing it for the money. And I mean, it was, it was stupid because we wasn't qualified to do this job and they didn't train us to do it. And I mean we should have never gone. They should have never offered us these jobs. That's how I take it now. I realize what they did. They took my life away from me, and they took a lot of other people's lives away from them. I have friends that passed away because of this. I got one of my deckhands that died. [voice breaking]
And, it’s, it’s hard.
John’s deckhand on the burn team has since died of illness. John doesn't believe his death is coincidental.
Mostly, now, John regrets not heeding a warning from someone we’ve already heard from.
Dr. Rikki Ott, I don't know if you've ever heard of her.
In 2010, marine toxicologist Rikki Ott held a talk in Venice, Louisiana. She warned of the health consequences of oil and dispersants. Rikki had lived through the Exxon Valdez oil spill, which ravaged her small fishing town in Alaska.
Her talk was attended by the wife and the aunt of John’s friend who was also volunteering for the cleanup.
And we was getting prepared to leave to go out the next day, and they came back crying and hollering and begging us not to go out. And when they told us, I got scared because what she told them, what happened to the guys of the Exxon Valdez, it scared me.
John debated backing out of the program – just quitting. He came close, but ultimately…
They decided to go, and they got me to go with them.
John eventually filed a lawsuit against BP – seeking compensation for health problems. The litigation dragged on for years. About three weeks before we interviewed John, a judge dismissed his case against BP. With prejudice. That means the case can’t be refiled.
What do you, what do you want from BP? What do you, what do you want at this point with this lawsuit? What are you, what are you hoping for?
What I'm hoping for? To go ahead and do what they gotta do to make it right, where my family can be taken care of. That's all I want. Because I mean, the thing is, if I die, what they gonna do?
One reason his case was dismissed was because the judge determined that John’s legal team wasn't able to demonstrate the specific causation of his health issues. Meaning, they couldn't adequately prove that John’s ailments were a result of his work on the cleanup.
And what happened with John's case isn't an outlier. BP has been enormously successful at winning lawsuits filed against them by cleanup workers.
I wanted to understand how they keep winning these cases. So I reached out to a law firm that’s currently waging dozens of oil spill related legal battles against BP.
And when I did, I wound up getting an invitation to a warehouse full of evidence.
That’s after the break. We’ll be right back.
[Scene: car blinker - driving]
So I’m in Florida, and I'm about to meet with an attorney from the Downs Law Group. They have a warehouse that is filled with things that are very much of interest to me. And the reason that I'm only saying that I'm in Florida is because we've been sworn to secrecy about the location of this warehouse.
So I suppose I can check “visiting a secret warehouse” off of my bucket list. Although there's a part of me – probably the part of me that's seen too many movies – that is a little disappointed that they didn't, you know, blindfold me and throw me in the back of an Escalade, then bring me to this warehouse. Instead, I'm just driving up myself. So it's not as dramatic as I would've liked… but, secret warehouse, nonetheless…I think this is it.
[Car door slam]
Nice to meet you, Dylan.
I met with Dylan Boigris – previously a public defender, then he became a trial attorney for the Downs Law Group. Downs is representing a number of cleanup workers in their lawsuits against BP. Including Caleb Breaux, who I interviewed weeks earlier.
I love that your secret warehouse has an ice cream truck that comes by [ice cream truck music]...(dip under)
The BP oil spill left a tangled mess of litigation in its wake.
So despite being 13 years later, legal developments haven’t stopped. And for reasons that will become clearer, the number of lawsuits against BP may actually be about to ramp up.
Downs’ marketing manager led me into what felt like a 100 degree room with stale air and protocols I had to follow. On a card table lay several pairs of safety glasses…
And then if you have eye protection…
I don't, but I'll wear that.
There were also a couple boxes of black latex gloves…
Just in case you touch something and it breaks, like a jar…
The reason I was getting decked out in PPE is because of what the Downs Law Group is in possession of – what I was there to see. In this warehouse, they’re storing the samples that were tested a decade prior to determine the environmental safety of the Gulf.
Don’t worry. Your safety is our top priority as well.
Some of these samples are covered in old Louisiana sweet crude oil and Corexit. In case you’re wondering – yes, I put on a respirator.
Check one, check two. Cool.
Attorney Dylan Boigris and I were standing outside the door of a giant temperature controlled room.
So we have, uh, samples that are maintained in this warehouse. There's approximately 130,000 samples maintained at three varying degrees of temperature.
Uh, we're gonna take you into the main room where, uh, samples are maintained at zero degrees celsius…(dip under)
Maintaining temperatures is a primary reason for the secrecy surrounding this place.
If someone were to interfere with the specific temperatures that these samples must be kept at, they’d sabotage the operation. The samples would be tainted and could no longer be studied for purposes of litigation.
How do you have all of this?
Right. Um, well, we received these samples from BP, uh, specifically from their NOX sample archive, which is maintained in Colorado. And some of the samples were maintained for the purposes of litigation against the state and the federal government. And when that litigation was resolved, BP was in a position that they can discard of particular samples. And that's when some of the plaintiff firms got involved. The Downs Law Group in particular took on the burden of accepting those samples and asked the court to receive them…(dip under)
Downs sent a bunch of refrigerated trucks to Colorado, packed up the samples, and drove them to this warehouse – intent on putting BP’s work under a microscope. They are running their own analysis of these samples.
The goal here is to check BP's math.
Gotcha. Let's see what you got.
[Scene: Fridge door opens]
I followed Dylan into the refrigerated room and my body kinda freaked out for a sec. It was a jarring transition from sweltering heat to zero degrees celsius. My safety glasses fogged up immediately.
I looked around through cloudy vision and saw long rows of black oil drums. Dozens of them. I thought for a second they might be a hallucination or something, but that's how a lot of these samples are stored.
Each of these drums have, um, boxes of samples. So…(dip under)
On the wall to my right were shelves lined with amber glass jugs, filled with liquid.
You can see our shelves of mostly water samples. And some of them are going to be clean, and some will be oiled.
To my left, jars filled with a hardened gray crud.
This is a tarball, maybe about an inch or so, um, in diameter. These are tarballs that we're testing for the purposes of identifying the chemicals that remained in the oil that was stranded on the shoreline.
Everything was labeled, documenting the history of each sample.
This one is from July 13th, 2010. We also have chain of custody of where it was collected. This was in Venice, Louisiana. We know who collected it.
And here I thought – who was in charge of collecting the samples that were determining the safety of the Gulf in 2010?
BP took responsibility for the cleanup, and they had a final say on what contractors were being used for that cleanup as well. That resulted in BP having control over what was collected, when it was collected, how it was collected, and how it was tested.
As the Downs Law Group started retesting the samples and analyzing the data collected by BP’s contractors, Dylan claims they made discoveries they found concerning. He says they learned that BP’s contractors weren’t testing with the greatest level of specificity.
They used a lot of general screening methods. For example, when we talk about people breathing in the contamination, one of the main things that we focus on is the measurement of benzene. A carcinogen. And that's exactly what we are doing here, is to evaluate through the dataset to show that BP should have collected specific type of information that they failed to collect.
But I thought – wasn’t the government doing any testing of their own at the time?
Was BP solely in charge of doing testing? I thought Coast Guard did a little bit of that, and EPA did a little bit of that. Am I wrong?
So Coast Guard only did monitoring in the open water, so they wouldn't have done any of the coastal monitoring. EPA did some monitoring. That's a good point that BP was not the only entity to collect data, despite the fact that they collected most of the data, and that's their claim to fame here is that they collected so much data, but we have to question the quality of that data.
One reason to question the quality of that data is because according to Dylan, in 2010, BP was hiring some scientific contractors for reasons other than just to monitor the safety of the Gulf.
BP hired their contractors, which we call them “incentivized contractors” because they were retained with the specific purpose of defending BP in future litigation. We have contracts that have been unredacted through litigation – for example, with a scientific litigation support firm – where they were retained one month into the oil spill saying they are being retained for the purposes of future litigation defense.
Dylan views all of this as a classic example of the fox guarding the hen house.
The Downs Law Group has been entrenched in legal battles against BP for years. I wondered what Dylan’s impressions were of the company after all his experience with them.
What kind of an opponent is BP?
Uh, I've used the phrase before, war of attrition. Ultimately, the Downs Law Group is not a large law firm. For every attorney in the Downs Law Group, BP has an entire law firm in that relative jurisdiction, right? Another example of the war of attrition is ultimately it's, um – BP doesn't make any concessions.
BP has not conceded a BELO case.
When Dylan says “BELO” case, he’s referring to something called a Back End Litigation Option.
BP did settle a massive class action lawsuit, wherein they did pay claimants for their health ailments. But these payouts were almost entirely for acute conditions – temporary conditions.
Under that class action settlement, if someone’s illness manifested after April 16th, 2012, they weren’t entitled to any settlement money. They had to sue BP on their own. This BELO process is likely the only path to compensation for those with chronic conditions – ongoing, persistent conditions.
An example of that is going to be, and this is the perfect example of people they compensated and should have continued to take care of, is is, sinusitis. This is an upper respiratory disease where people received compensation for acute sinusitis. Well, what happens to somebody who has repeated acute sinusitis? They then develop chronic sinusitis, and what happened is if they were diagnosed with their chronic sinusitis after the cutoff date in 2012, BP said, “We no longer take accountability for that injury and you're going to have to prove to me the injury you received from my oil in 2010 could have continued to injure you.” It seems like they're really splitting hairs there, and it's because they are.
Whether or not BP is splitting hairs, they’ve been dominant in winning BELO cases. And the courts have placed a heavy burden of proof on Dylan, and his clients.
The courts have specifically said, “You need to tell me exactly what chemical at what level causes this injury.” Now that's really difficult. So when we have the responsible party that collected the data in a way that doesn't comport with the court's expectations, what are the plaintiffs left to do? They can't turn back time and go collect the data that the court is asking for now.
When it comes to exposure to Corexit, this lack of data becomes even more troublesome.
What does Corexit do to the oil? In this circumstance, it made it airborne, because of wave action. And no different than anyone else that goes to the beach, and they have the salts from the ocean on them and that sea spray mist. Well now that included an oil mist, and that oil mist was accumulating on the coastlines. BP knew this was happening because there is, there are communications where BP was investigating oil mist. The obvious conclusion to this is that there are individuals visiting these beaches and engaging in cleanup efforts that are ingesting, inhaling, and being coated dermally with microparticles, because they used Corexit.
But the science – the studies looking into the health impacts of the oil spill and Corexit – haven't been definitive enough in the eyes of the law.
That's an enormous hurdle for cleanup workers to overcome.
Their cases are being thrown out, and they're going to continue to live with chronic illnesses, including cancers, for the rest of their lives, with no opportunity to come back to the court and get compensation once we finally figure it out. Well these cancers are now coming online. This is a scenario where individuals exposed to the BP oil spill are starting to develop cancer, and these are the people that are going to be suffering with more severe injuries, some of them terminal.
To date, over 5,000 BELO cases have been filed. 5,000 claims suing BP over deteriorating health. If more cancers are beginning to manifest, as Dylan claims, that number may only increase.
But if any of those cases are going to be victorious against BP, they’ll have to prove the specific causation of their condition. And as I learned, in some cases, that might be impossible.
We’ll be right back.
I really don't like how we're being ignored. I don't like how, you know, I just, I really just want justice.
Who do you, who do you think's ignoring you?
Honestly, I just, I think BP.
This is Caleb Breaux. He’s a former cleanup worker being represented by the Downs Law Group.
I really just think they're done with it. They want to move on, and honestly just don't think they want a snowball effect, which I get it. I mean, you know, they don't want every person in Louisiana that had cancer blamin’ it – I get it. But the thing is, you gotta look at the people that directly affected by it.
Sometimes, in our interview, Caleb would sort of stop talking to me, and instead talk to BP through his microphone. As if he wished they were listening.
You know, to me, you can't ignore those people. I mean, they were there to clean up your mess, and you're just gonna ignore 'em? I mean, they did your dirty work and you're just gonna throw 'em away? Like they're some dirty oil boom, you know? Like, and that's, that’s the thing. That's what kind of bothers me.
After the spill, Caleb lived with dizzy spells, pains in his chest, and swollen lymph nodes before eventually being diagnosed with lymphoma. His lawsuit against BP is ongoing.
Has BP said why they don't feel like they need to pay you?
No, so all we got so far is that they just feel that that's not what affected us.
Your cancer came from something else. You can't prove it.
That's not what affected us.
They want you to prove precise, but how can you ask somebody to be so precise when you don't even know yourself exactly what happened, you know? Everything that was coming up from that sea floor, from the Gulf floor, like, what, what, did they have an official down there testing every little bubble that came up? I mean, no. It’s like, how do you, you asking somebody else to give you evidence that you can't produce yourself.
Caleb believes the origin of his cancer is self-evident. This belief is reinforced by what happened to the captain of the vessel he worked on. This guy Todd.
Speaking on Todd, like one of the best guys you'll ever meet.
Um, he still, he calls me CPB cuz I had it on the back of my life jacket during the oil spill. “CPB,” you know, he always calls me that, and I love when I hear that.
He's always laughing. He's always funny. Even though like right now he's in a fight of his life, he's still smiling.
Caleb was hoping Todd would stop by and join our interview, but Todd was too sick to participate; he’s also battling lymphoma. Caleb and Todd were diagnosed with the same cancer three months apart. This makes BP’s position that his cancer couldn’t have come from the oil spill all the more absurd to Caleb.
I mean, you're talking about three months apart. To me, that's open and shut. And you know, I'm no scientist, but in common sense with all of these different chemicals coming up. Come on. It’s, it’s obvious, you know.
Common sense. That's a phrase I heard a lot growing up. When I was a kid my father worked construction. The crews talked about common sense, showed little patience for people who didn't have it.
I feel like in my lifetime, I’ve watched “common sense” become a slightly divisive turn of phrase. I know people who scoff at it. They seem to think that common sense is a way of avoiding hard truths, or it’s a way of oversimplifying an issue.
The issue here is whether or not working on the cleanup caused chronic health conditions. Like cancer.
As frustrating as it may be for Caleb Breaux, common sense can’t answer that question legally.
The United States government has been surveying cleanup workers of the BP oil spill for over a decade.
So, uh, the Gulf study is a, uh, long-term study following the health of people who had something to do with cleaning up after the oil spill.
This is Dr. Dale Sandler. She’s the chief investigator on what’s called “The Gulf Study.”
We enrolled more than 30,000, uh, people who had some job associated with cleaning up the spill, and we've been following them since about 2011.
Dr. Sandler works for the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences. The Gulf Study signed up participants, and they've been checking in on their health periodically and documenting what they find.
Betsy Shepherd and I sat down for this interview with Dr. Sandler desperately seeking clarity. We were hoping that the Gulf Study – this massive, 40 million dollar undertaking – would shed some definitive light on whether or not the cleanup workers were made chronically ill by the oil spill.
We got some clarity, but we mostly ended with more questions.
The Gulf Study relied on the same data from BP that keeps popping up in this series. The data that determined whether or not cleanup workers were being exposed to dangerous levels of toxicity.
Dr. Sandler believes that this data was advantageous to her work.
BP made those data available to us. That allowed us to have the most comprehensive exposure assessment of any oil spill study ever.
After saying this, Dr. Sandler went on to reveal something that gave me pause.
And our chemist figured out that, or noticed that, well, they set the bar too high for what they're willing to share, and we got them to share the data below their limits of detection. So we have corrected the estimates.
So there was a negotiation between the Gulf Study and BP for more data. And it's important to talk about the limits BP and their contractors were using at the time. These critical numbers that determined whether or not an area was safe to work in.
They were basing it on what was at the time the occupational exposure limits, how much OSHA and other people had determined that somebody could be exposed to in an eight hour period.
It's true that what BP was using were numbers set by OSHA and others for what was considered safe levels of exposure for an eight hour work day.
But basing it on an eight hour work day is confusing – because many cleanup workers at the time were working 12 hour shifts or longer – not eight hour work shifts.
And it turns out that there were questions being raised about this at the time – internally at BP. There was a conversation between BP contractors and employees, where this eight hour guideline was called into question.
We got our hands on a document – an e-mail thread from May 2010. An industrial hygienist is raising concerns. She says that vessels expressed that they were working 12 hour shifts, and they wanted answers regarding their exposure to benzene. The vessels also expressed that they were being exposed 24 hours a day – not eight, or 12 hours.
So a toxicologist proposes that the exposure levels be significantly changed to reflect a 24 hours a day, seven day a week exposure.
We reached out to BP asking them whether or not they ever implemented these changes.
BP did not respond to our request for comment.
But interestingly, according to an archived government webpage – the EPA was using a 24 hour a day, 7 day a week screening level when analyzing some air samples. It's not clear why BP and the EPA would be using different screening levels.
The Gulf Study has observed alterations to lung function and increased risk for heart attacks and total cardiovascular or coronary heart disease events. According to their survey, there was a specific job with an increased risk of illness.
One of the techniques to mitigate the oil spill, um, environmental damage was to actually burn it at the surface.
John Wunstell’s job. The in situ burn teams.
And the people who were involved in or around where the oil spill was being burned, um, seemed to have been, to be at increased risk for both respiratory, um, effects, including reduced lung function as well as cardiovascular disease effects.
Given that we had received multiple reports of cancer, we were anxious to know what the Gulf Study had to say about a link between the BP oil spill and cancer.
It's too soon for us to know whether that's something that we're seeing in the oil spill, and we've really only begun to start linking with cancer registries because it was, you know, previously too soon to expect to see any of those effects.
Dr. Sandler explained that most cancers take 15 to 20 years to develop, which is one of the reasons they waited to link with the registries.
But blood cancers, like lymphoma and leukemia – the cancers we've heard reported – can form much more quickly than most cancers. However, Dr. Sandler says that tracking those specific cancers presents challenges.
The rarity of those cancers in the general population, as well as the number of years of follow up. So, um, if cases have developed in the cohort, there would not be enough of them, or there would not have been enough of them in prior years for us to be able to say something that would be statistically valid. We are very interested in monitoring whether the cohort is at increased risk for leukemias and lymphomas.
Dr. Sandler cautions that the Gulf Study can never be sure of discovering all cases of blood cancer within the cohort. The registries will help identify more cases but not all of them.
So more questions.
The Gulf Study also looked into exposure to dispersants, and here, we did get some clarity.
I asked her about the studies that we looked into in this series – showing that the combination of Corexit and crude was more toxic than crude alone.
So does the Gulf Study in any way contradict those findings? It's, it's sounding like you're telling me it, it doesn't necessarily.
No, actually that those findings support the fact that we are seeing self-reported health effects, you know, acute health, that we saw acute health effects around the time people were out there when the Corexits were being used. When we say that we have 10,000 people who are out and about when dispersants were being used, and those who were more likely to have been exposed to something had greater health effects, it probably is due to the sort of combination, and I can't say for certainty, but it makes sense to me.
So it makes sense to Dr. Dale Sandler. But she can't say for certainty. And it seems certainty is what the cleanup workers need to win their lawsuits.
There may have been more certainty about all this had more research been done in the aftermath of the spill. We spoke to a man who recommended just that, and he reported having a hard time getting funding.
His name is James Diaz.
I'm professor of Public Health and Preventative Medicine at LSU Health Sciences Center in New Orleans.
Betsy was curious for his point of view in part because he holds a distinctive set of credentials in the state of Louisiana.
And you are the state's only board certified occupational medicine expert and board certified toxicologist. Is that right?
Well, I'm board certified in both. Nobody else is.
Shortly after the spill, James wrote a series of articles. In one, he stated that certain cleanup workers and members of the general population would require long-term surveillance for chronic adverse health effects.
And James started doing research looking into the effects of the spill.
Unfortunately, you know, I began immediate research right away, and we were getting some very interesting data. And uh, I mean funding was cut off immediately and we were told not to pursue.
Any um, guess as to why?
I can't tell you. I mean, other people were funded, including other people at LSU who basically studied, you know, mental health, and those studies were funded. But studies where we were looking for biomarkers in the environment, at least the ones that we wanted to conduct, were not funded.
There was something else we wanted to know from James, who sits at the center of toxicology and occupational medicine.
How do we see if there is a spike in health problems as a result of the BP oil spill?
Well, that's gonna be very difficult, if not impossible, to do. And that's based on comorbidities.
And James didn’t mince words – he says the causal link between cancer and the oil spill is essentially impossible to prove. His reasoning is stark.
In Louisiana, we have a lot of comorbidities. We have an unhealthy population with a lot of smoking, a lot of obesity, and a lot of lung disease.
How do you prove the oil spill gave you cancer when there are so many other things that could have given it to you?
And we know that eating a lot of blackened foods, fish and meat primarily, can be associated with colon cancer.
Smoking, diet – hell, even everyday activities – can give you cancer.
Benzene is a known carcinogen. Every time you fill your car with gasoline, it's releasing benzene. So I don't know what you do, but I go and clean my windows rather than smell the benzene.
So the older patient exposed, the patient who smokes, the patient who eats a lot of smoked meats and blackened meats and fish, we get concerned. So these comorbidities were likely operating in some of the oil spill cleanup workers.
This line of reasoning is one way BP defends itself in court. If a cleanup worker was a smoker – that could be the cause of their health problems. If their lifestyle was unhealthy – that might be the cause of their health problems.
In order for a cleanup worker to protect themselves against this argument, they might need hard data. The type of hard data James collected in a prior job.
I worked at a BP refinery before it was bought out by another company, Chevron, I think.
You know, we, we closely monitor workers in, um, work in petrochemical refineries. We measure benzene in their blood. There are other chemicals that we measure in their blood and chemicals that we measure in the atmosphere.
Do you know if benzene was being monitored during the cleanup? During the cleanup?
No, there was little to, not that I'm aware of. There was no real blood monitoring or biomarker monitoring of the responding workers.
There's something I tried hard to keep in mind while I was learning about the BP oil spill. I kept reminding myself of this ever-relevant piece of context: it was chaos. It was the largest oil spill in American history. The leak was 5,000 feet below the surface of the ocean, the decisions that were being made were being made on-the-fly in a situation that had never occurred at that scale in the United States.
It was chaos.
But it occurs to me that the chaos of the cleanup efforts – the unprecedented nature of it all, the disorganization, the improvisation, the lack of data – none of this is hurting BP in court. It’s helping them.
There are questions to be asked about the cleanup – was it incorrect to base exposure limits on an eight hour workday? Should it have been 12? Or 24? How significant from a risk standpoint was that decision? Did the application of Corexit aerosolize the oil? What are the health implications of that? And what was the true exposure risk of the mixture of Corexit and crude? Did the unprecedented use of Corexit create a toxic environment in the Gulf that wasn't planned for?
BP was declared the responsible party for the oil spill. And yet, answering these questions, solving these mysteries, isn’t BP’s problem now – not legally. Instead, that burden is on the backs of the cleanup workers.
Which maybe defies common sense.