As Dolphins Die, Gulf Residents Ask What About Us?

Willie Seaman of Irvington, AL, lays carpet and floors for a living. But last summer, as the BP well gushed thousands of barrels of oil daily into the Gulf, Seaman signed up with the BP cleanup program, working on a shrimp boat several miles off shore.

It was brutally hot and the smell of oil was putrid, Seaman remembers. His job was to use a net to try to pull in the thick, reddish BP crude that he says was up to a foot thick in places. Problem was, the white protective suits didn’t do much to keep the oil off, Willie recalls. Instead, he says they acted like absorbent pads, soaking up the oil that would rub against his skin. 

Seaman says before long he started breaking out in blistery red hives on his hands and feet. The itching was so bad a coworker said Seaman would scrub his feet with a wire brush until his skin sloughed off like scales of a fish. Despite shots of steroids and numerous doctor visits, Seaman endured countless bouts of painful hives; and he still gets them, he says, especially after eating seafood from the Gulf. He also says he knows others who have broken out in hives after eating seafood.

“They took advantage of everyone down here because we were all poor and broke,” he says. “They told us in hazwhoper class that we didn’t have to worry about the toxins because the oil was weathered and there were no fumes. We’ll it was so bad my eyes were on fire and I had tears running down my throat.”

Seaman reports he got $12,000 from BP last year for lost wages and then took a $5,000 quick claim buyout from BP claims administer Ken Feinberg. “I needed the money, but now I can’t sue because I took the money,” he says.

Oil cleanup workers recently at Horn Island, MS         Photo: Lorrie Williams

Seaman's story unfortunately is not uncommon among fishermen who worked on the cleanup. Many complain of ongoing health problems related to the oil and chemical dispersant mix that poisoned their fishing grounds last year. Tar balls and an oily sheen sometimes continue to roll into shore. NRDC’s health expert Gina Solomon blogged  earlier this year, noting that nearly half of Gulf coast residents reporting problems in one study had no health insurance:

Local community advocates tell me that their phones are ringing off the hook with calls from people who are sick and looking for help. Ecosystem restoration meetings on the Gulf coast have been overwhelmed by people testifying about health symptoms because it’s the only place they can be heard. Clean-up workers and community members are worried about an increase in unexplained symptoms such as rashes, chronic respiratory problems, fatigue, and headaches. 

In its State of the Gulf report released in September, the Waterkeeper Alliance describes the ongoing health problems in the Gulf this way:

In the following weeks and months more and more cleanup workers, fishermen and community members experienced health problems that they believed might be related to the BP oil disaster. Symptoms commonly reported to Save Our Gulf Waterkeepers expanded to include skin irritation and sores, irritation of the eyes, nose and throat, nausea, diarrhea, numbness of the extremities, stomach cramps/abdominal pain, dizziness, confusion, depression, coughing, shortness of breath/difficulty breathing, and chest pains. These individuals also were often unable to get relief or satisfactory diagnosis from their local health care providers…

Over the period since such problems arose, communities have repeatedly asked state and federal decision makers to address their health concerns appropriately. To date no public forum or task force has been set up specifically to address the public health concerns arising from the BP oil disaster. With no alternative, concerned community members have been attending government ecosystem restoration forums and BP claims meetings to express their anger and frustration over the lack of government action. 

Although health complaints are often front and center in the Gulf, that appears to be far from the case in Washington. Last week, the House Committee on Natural Resources called BP claims administrator Ken Feinberg to answer complaints about the $20 billion program. To date, Feinberg reports he has paid out about $6 billion. That includes money to governmental agencies and some money used for cleanup. Many residents on the front lines say they have been denied the compensation they deserve.

Ken Feinberg at House hearing; claims critics E. Faye Williams and Art Rocker 

Photos Rocky Kistner/NRDC

Feinberg was criticized by lawmakers for poorly compensating shrimp fishermen, who are experiencing one of the worst seasons in recent memory. Feinberg admitted he needed to do better. But there was not one question about health issues in the Gulf, despite the fact they have been at the forefront of most public meetings about the disaster, including the president's oil spill commission.

Feinberg has been roundly criticized for denying health claims in a report published by Advocates for Environmental Human Rights last summer. During a break in the last week's hearing, Feinberg denied that he has rejected the 200 or so long-term health claims he's received, stating they're still under evaluation by independent epidemiologists and experts in Houston. He said he expected to get results at the end of this week. When asked why he only had 200 health claims out of potentially thousands of people affected by the oil disaster, Feinberg said; “I have 200. Now if I start paying those claims, you watch how many I get.”

That very well could be a foreshadowing of how those health claims will be handled. Residents in the Gulf have been waiting for months for an answer to this question, as Karen Savage blogged in Bridgethegulf. Whatever his decision, the threshold for proving a disability or health claim from the oil likely will be high for a region that suffers from poor health care to begin with.

Many like Willie Seaman say they continue to have health problems, even though they still work. They suffer largely in silence, hoping their rashes and coughs and dizzy spells they say are linked to oil and chemical dispersants will wash away with the tides.

Dolphin found near Gulfport MS last week             Photo: Laurel Lockamy

But that may be wishful thinking if what’s happening to wildlife is any indication. Dolphins continue to die in high numbers. Fishermen report fish with lesions and shrimp coated with black substances that no one has seen before. Crabs and oyster harvests are dismal. Something seems seriously wrong with the fisheries.

All the more reason to ask, Gulf residents say, what about the people?