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BP Oil Spill Cleanup Workers Getting Sick, Exxon Valdez Survivor Warns of Long-Term Health Effects

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As the BP oil spill enters its seventy-eighth day, cleanup crews across the Gulf Coast are working to try and remove what they can of the expanding oil slick. And many of them are getting sick doing it. A growing number of cleanup workers have reported suffering flu-like symptoms, including headaches, dizziness, fatigue, nausea and problems with memory and concentration. We speak with a Louisiana chemist, who testified before Congress to call for greater worker protections, and a former general foreman of the cleanup crews of the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill. [includes rush transcript]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: As the BP oil spill enters its seventy-ninth day, cleanup crews across the Gulf Coast are working to try and remove what they can of the expanding oil slick, laying booms, operating skimmers. Many of them are getting sick doing it. In the two-and-a-half months since the oil disaster struck, a growing number of cleanup workers have reported suffering flu-like symptoms that may be the consequence of exposure to chemicals in the oil, as well as in the dispersant being used on the slick. The symptoms include headaches and dizziness, fatigue, nausea, problems with memory and concentration.

And if history is any guide, the health effects on workers involved in oil spill cleanup efforts can be deadly. CNN has reported many of the thousands who worked to clean up the '89 Exxon Valdez oil spill in Alaska have either died or become sick. The Committee on Energy and Commerce recently sent a letter to Rex Tillerson, the chair and CEO of ExxonMobil, asking for all documents related to the long-term health effects of the Exxon Valdez oil spill on cleanup workers.

Merle Savage was a general foreman of the cleanup crews of the Exxon Valdez oil spill. She's still suffering health effects more than twenty years later. She recently wrote an open letter to Gulf cleanup crews telling part of her story to raise awareness of similar risks they might face. She’s joining us now from Las Vegas.

Merle, I’d like to begin by asking you what happened to you twenty years ago and what you warned the BP cleanup workers about.

MERLE SAVAGE: Thank you, Amy.

Well, whenever I heard that they were cleaning the oil spill in the Gulf, I realized it was déjà vu all over again. It was me and my crew out there cleaning and becoming sick, not being able to breathe, and suffering with the flu-like symptoms, with stomach disorder.

AMY GOODMAN: What happened to you? What were you doing as foreman of a cleanup crew? Where were you, and what were you tasked with doing?

MERLE SAVAGE: The first couple of weeks, I was on the beach, like all the other people, and we were spraying the oily rocks with hot water. And the mist would come back up, and it was all around us. We breathed it for the whole time that we were out there, from ten hours until sixteen, and it was continuous. The whole crew, we were all sick. And it ended up being — it would become like bronchitis. And when we went to the doctor, they only said it’s the flu, and it’s going around, and everyone has it.

And then, when I became general foreman, I was on the barges that housed the people. And in the decon area, where they took off their clothes and their rain gear and their boots that was covered with the oil, and sprayed them down with hot water, that mist would come out over the area where everybody was at, and we were always breathing it. Again, Exxon told us that it was not harmful, so we did not do anything about it. There were no respirators, only paper masks, which would not last but just a few hours.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re joined on the phone, as well, from Louisiana by a woman CNN has called another Erin Brockovich and The Guardian has called an “activist grandmother” and “Tony Hayward’s worst nightmare.” Wilma Subra is a chemist who’s been working for the past thirty years to defend local communities against Louisiana’s powerful oil and gas industry. She’s president of Subra Company and provides technical assistance to community groups on environmental issues and to the Louisiana Environmental Action Network. She testified before Congress last month about the after effects of the Gulf Coast oil spill, joining us on the phone from her home in New Iberia, Louisiana.

Can you tell us what you’re seeing is happening to the cleanup workers and what has to be done, Wilma Subra, what you told Congress?

WILMA SUBRA: Yes. One of the issues is that the fishermen along the coasts of Louisiana, as well as Mississippi, Alabama and the upper Florida coast, were put out of business instantly when the fishing grounds were closed. So they desperately needed jobs, so they desperately wanted the cleanup jobs that BP had to offer. As a result of going to work for BP, they were not provided with adequate training and especially not provided with adequate protective gear. So they were sent out to set up booms, to start picking up those absorbent booms that had the hydrocarbons in them, and leaning over the crude oil slick on a daily basis. And they would come down with headaches, nausea, dizziness, respiratory problems, and they’d get sick every day. And they’d come in at night sick, go back out in the morning.

And they were told, if they spoke out, they would be fired. Over the long haul, the wives were speaking out, because they were concerned for the health of their husbands. And then the message came that if the wives weren’t quiet, their husbands would lose their jobs. And yet, no one could complain, because BP had made it quite well known that if they complained, they will be out of a job and they would have no source of income.

AMY GOODMAN: Wilma Subra, this whole issue — when we were down in the Gulf, we kept hearing about it —- of workers being told they actually couldn’t wear respirators, because it would make it look like the situation was dangerous.

WILMA SUBRA: That’s correct. Louisiana Environmental Action Network actually, early in the process, purchased protective gear and respirators and provided it to the fishermen, because we didn’t want them to be sick by being employed by BP. And BP actually told the fishers, “If you bring the respirator on the boat and attempt to wear it, you’re fired.”

AMY GOODMAN: And what are the effects of what people are inhaling?

WILMA SUBRA: The crude oil is made up of semi-volatile organics, which are known as polynuclear aromatic hydrocarbons. They also have quite a volume of volatile organics, such as benzene, but that off-gases fairly quickly as it is exposed to the air on the ocean. So, most of what they’re inhaling is the polynuclear aromatic hydrocarbons, which are known and suspected cancer-causing agents. In addition, they have a lot of heart, lung impacts. So these fishers are short-term exposed and are coming down with all of these illnesses. And we’re fearing that they will be sick for the rest of their lives, with the long term. And as you said, this is day seventy-nine, so it’s not just a one— or two-time exposure now. It’s very long-term exposure that they are going out on a daily basis and working over this oil slick and becoming sick.

AMY GOODMAN: Wilma Subra, where is the government regulation in all of this?

WILMA SUBRA: OSHA is the agency in the United States that regulates workplace. And when we finally were able to engage OSHA and have them come down and start observing what was going on, they first went on what they call the onshore and near-shore workers, which are the individuals walking along the beaches picking up the tar balls and the slick. And it’s been very, very hot in Louisiana, and they said they were a lot of heat stress. And they actually tagged BP with not reporting all the injuries. But they said if we made the workers wear a respirator, it would make them have heat stress even more. And then, finally, after a number of weeks, OSHA came out and said the workers on the beach could only work for twenty minutes, and they would have to rest for forty minutes in the shade with plenty of liquids. However, the fishermen that are working in the Vessels of Opportunity, inshore and offshore, are used to this weather. This is their fishing weather. This is their shrimping weather. So they are saying that they are being stressed by breathing the fumes, much more so than they would be stressed if they wore a respirator.

AMY GOODMAN: Merle Savage, if we’re going to learn from history, it’s pretty difficult, actually. Exxon embargoed all its records after the 1994 trials, which were settled out of court, until 2020?

MERLE SAVAGE: This is what I understand. And it leaves us without any way to be compensated for our illnesses.

AMY GOODMAN: Now, it’s interesting, because on July 1st, the Committee of Energy and Commerce demanded that Exxon release the information, the letter specifying that one of the committee’s main concerns in investigating the spill is the long-term health effects of the cleanup workers. So, we may be able to get access to this information. You wrote a book on your whole experience. In the letter, what did you think is the most important thing to tell the cleanup crews now in the Gulf of Mexico, from your knowledge of cleaning up the Exxon Valdez?

MERLE SAVAGE: Well, just please do not listen to what they are saying. BP is hiding everything they can, in giving you the truth. So you need to think for yourself and understand that breathing this crude oil is definitely going to be harmful to you. And even if there’s the slightest chance that it could hurt you, don’t do it. Fifteen dollars an hour is not worth it. Your life is worth a lot more. Because I am a victim, and they — Exxon — took away my health for twenty-one years. Understand, it was not my choice. Had I known, had I been given the opportunity, had someone leaked information or wrote me a letter and told me how toxic the crude oil would be, I never, ever have gone out and cleaned the oil spill, because I’ve had to suffer for twenty-one years. And it doesn’t get any better.

AMY GOODMAN: Merle Savage, I want to thank you for being with us, general foreman of the cleanup crews of the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill, and Wilma Subra, chemist and president of Subra Company, provides technical assistance to community groups on environmental issues and the Louisiana Environmental Action Network, testified before Congress.

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