BP Cleanup Worker: "How Could I Have Known It Would Get This Bad?"
For weeks, Adam Williams had been looking forward to his son’s first t-ball game of the season.
So much so, that when he had what was the latest in a long string of seizure-like episodes before the game, no one was surprised that he still made it to the park in time for the first inning. The seizure’s after-effects left his speech slurred and his brain foggy, but even that didn’t prevent the proud father from cheering on his son on an otherwise picture-perfect day on Florida’s Gulf Coast.
For Williams, feeling sick has become normal. Since working to clean up BP’s oil in 2010, he has suffered from various health problems. But he never thought it would get this bad.
Photo: A crewmember working BP cleanup with Williams, summer 2010. Credit: Adam Williams
Like his father and uncles before him, Williams is a shrimper. Having been around boats for as long as he can remember, he describes a sense of peace and freedom on the water that he says just can’t be found anywhere else. Up until last September, he was able to make a living on that water, doing what he loved.
But until doctors can pinpoint the cause of his seizures – and more importantly how to prevent them - Williams is stuck on dry land.
Back in 2010, after BP’s Deepwater Horizon rig exploded and the Gulf of Mexico was closed to fishing, the only logical thing to do for Williams, like many fishermen across the Gulf Coast, was to work cleanup.
“We were just trying to save our livelihood… that water is where we make our living,” he explained during a recent conversation.
Before BP’s oil first rolled into Louisiana’s marshes and bays, Williams was part of the first task force activated for cleanup.
His boat worked inshore, along with about 23 or so similar boats in a large area that was broken into smaller zones. He said groups of 3 - 5 boats would be assigned per zone to look for oil. When oil was found, boats assigned to that zone would corral the oil and put down absorbent boom. Later, they would return to pick up the oil-soaked boom, bag it, and deliver it to larger supply boats.
“Bagging up that boom was a mess…the boats got covered in oil, ” Williams said, as he described pulling in and bagging the boom, which was heavy with saturated water, dispersant and oil.
He says they were given boots, gloves and Tyvek suits to try to protect themselves from exposure to toxins in the oil and dispersant, but the suits were flimsy and easily ripped.
At the end of each day, they lifted the dripping bags of used boom up onto the supply boat. Oily water would leak out of the bags, running down their outstretched arms into their gloves, splashing into their boots and through their torn Tyvek suits.
Once they’d offloaded their oily cargo and finished their shift, Williams and the crew would drop anchor, sleeping on the boat until the next day’s shift began early the next morning.
After about three weeks in Louisiana, Williams was hired as captain of a larger boat closer to his home in Florida. He says they were told they would never handle oil, would likely see only weathered oil – not the newer, fresher black oil – and were told they would likely never come in contact with dispersants. His boat’s assignment was to corral the oil, this time so skimmer boats could come and skim it from the water’s surface.
This worked when the skimmer boats were available. But without explanation, Williams said, the skimmer boats were reassigned after a only few weeks, leaving his boat – and others like it – virtually useless. They could corral the oil, but had no ability to clean it up.
“So we just sat there,” explained Williams incredulously. “We couldn’t even do anything. We just sat there, we didn’t clean oil, we didn’t work.”
At times assigned to an area within nine miles of the BP’s wellhead, he theorizes they were called out there by BP more for show than for any actual ability to clean oil.
But in spite of being at ground zero of one of the largest oil spills in history, he says they had no air monitors or respirators on the boat.
“The oil company boats, they were the ones with the air monitors and the respirators. When the monitors went off, we’d get notification on the radio to stay inside the cabin and to get out of the area,” he explained.
“And we’d just have to keep going until the monitor stopped going off. But sometimes we’d come to a good spot and they’d tell us we couldn’t stay because they were spraying [dispersants], or we couldn’t stay near the burning [oil] or there were already too many boats in the area. So we’d have to just keep moving.”
Williams and his crew worked until the beginning of September, making them one of the longest-working cleanup boats.
“For days and days and days we were right there… and there were planes flying all around, boats all over, sometimes they were burning oil right next to us. It was crazy out there.”
Although he worked in some of the most heavily oiled areas in Louisiana on one clean-up job and was within nine miles of the wellhead during the second, Williams was initially reluctant to attribute his illness to BP’s oil and/or Corexit.
He says he was healthy before cleanup. He reports experiencing respiratory issues and coughing when working in Louisiana and says his sinus troubles started around the same time.
Shortly after cleanup ended, Williams says he started having other issues - urinary tract problems, continued sinus trouble, and he was tired all the time. He says he had kidney stone symptoms, but doctors could find no evidence of kidney stones.
When other members of his cleanup crew reported having similar problems, they began to connect health issues to exposure to the oil and dispersants.
“All of us who worked went through the same thing… We just didn’t feel good.”
Still, Williams was a shrimper at heart. He loved the water and went back to shrimping as soon as he could after cleanup ended. He describes his Fall 2010 shrimping trips as some of the best he has ever had. Outside of lingering fatigue and health issues, he thought the worst was over.
After a while, Williams got used to feeling tired and sick and, until September of 2014, he was able to push himself to work through it. That’s when the seizure-like episodes started.
During an episode, his heart races and he feels a numbness that spreads across his face and head, similar to what he’s heard a stroke might feel like. He says his blood pressure soars and then rapidly drops, initially causing doctors to suspect heart problems, which have since been ruled out. He says doctors have told him a CAT scan of his head is normal and have also ruled out a stroke.
“Five hospital stays of five to seven days each, four emergency room trips and two months of going back and forth to doctors and I still haven’t been diagnosed with anything wrong with me,” Williams explains with frustration.
He has endured a battery of tests and been prescribed anti-seizure medication, but says nothing’s helped.
“I tell them every single time I worked cleanup and they just roll their eyes,” Williams adds.
Doctors have advised him is not to go offshore and to stay within reach of medical care, which scares him.
“If they can’t figure out what’s wrong with me, I wish they’d at least figure out what’s not wrong with me…At least if they could figure out that it won’t kill me, it would be easier,” Williams said softly.
“Right now I worry about having one of these and it turns out to be a stroke or something. I’m scared I’m gonna die.”
Due in part to the stress of his illness and inability to work, he and his wife have separated and he recently moved in with his parents.
After an episode, he says it’s not uncommon for him to sleep for up to 30 hours.
Doctors recently discovered polyps in his sinuses, with one completely blocking his left sinus that needs to be surgically removed. “They can see there’s a polyp in there, but they can’t see what’s behind it.”
Like many who became ill while working BP cleanup, he worries about medical bills. “Something’s wrong…I made good money when I worked with them, but now I have all these medical problems. Who’s going to pay for that?"
When he was still shrimping, like most fishermen, Williams was uninsured. Since last September, he’s incurred nearly $200,000 worth of medical bills. Ironically, now that he’s no longer able to work, he qualifies for medical assistance, but that only covers William’s most recent hospitalization and future medical expenses.
As it currently stands, the medical benefits settlement agreed upon by BP and plaintiffs, and approved by Judge Barbier, will likely not cover Williams and others in similar situations.
According to reports, the settlement wording initially required claimants to have experienced symptoms prior to April 2012. However at some point, the wording in the final copy was altered to require claimants to instead have been diagnosed prior to April 2012.
When the wording was appealed, even Judge Barbier seemed surprised. He ruled that the wording must be interpreted as it was written, but also noted,
“It is rather strange that the court would approve a settlement that really doesn’t settle thousands of claims and requires them to file another lawsuit. I mean, it doesn’t sound like much of a settlement.”
Many, like Williams, agree. A large percentage of toxic exposure victims were uninsured when they first became ill and only went to a doctor when their symptoms became unbearable. It has been estimated up to 95% of all claimants were not diagnosed by the deadline, leaving victims to pursue legal compensation lawsuits on their own.
“In order to have been diagnosed by that deadline, I would need to have gone to a doctor way before my serious health problems started,” said Williams, tiredly.
“But how could I have known it would get this bad?”