Exxon Spill's Cleanup Workers Share Years of Crippling Illness
November 5, 2001
By KIM MURPHY
Times Staff Writer
VALDEZ, Alaska -- The toll of the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill is a sadly
familiar one: dead birds, sea otters, harbor seals--all victims of the oil
tanker that ran over a reef late one March night and drained 11 million
gallons of oil into Prince William Sound.
There are others whom almost no one talks about, although unlike the birds, most
of them are still alive. They are the people who scraped oil off the beaches,
skimmed it off the top of the water, hosed it off rocks.* Workers who stood in
the brown foam 18 hours a day, who came back to their sleeping barges with oil
matted in their hair, ate sandwiches speckled with oil, steered boats through a
brown hydrocarbon haze that looked like the smog from hell.
After that summer, some found oil traces in their lungs, in their blood cells,
in the fatty tissue of their buttocks. They got treated for headaches, nausea,
chemical burns and breathing problems, and went home. But some never got well.
Steve Cruikshank of Wasilla, Alaska, has headaches that go on for days. Two
years ago, he was hospitalized when his lungs nearly stopped working. "The
doctor said, 'I'm going to give you the strongest antibiotic known to man, and
you're either going to survive or not survive. I don't know what's wrong with you.' What's wrong is, I
haven't felt right since that oil spill."
John Baker of Kelso, Wash., has had nosebleeds "like gushers" that
won't go away and growths in his lungs. "They say generally that people who
work in underground mines and stuff get this kind of thing. But the only thing like that I ever worked on was the oil spill."
The lungs of Tim Burt of Seldovia, Alaska, were coated with oil while he was
steam-cleaning oil tanks. As his lungs began to fail, he got wrenching
headaches. None of the painkillers was strong enough. " 'Just kill me,' he'd say. 'I can't stand the pain anymore,'
" recalls his sister, Sandy Elvsaas. Burt died in 1995 of a drug overdose.
"He figured he had nothing to lose. He was dead already."
These people all have one thing in common. They were healthy when they arrived
in Prince William Sound for a summer of hard work and good pay. They were sick when they left.
"There appear to be hundreds, maybe even thousands, of workers that were
affected negatively, probably by their exposure to chemicals used in the cleanup process," said Anchorage attorney Michael Schneider,
who is teaming with Westlake Village lawyer Ed Masry to take a new look at the
15,000 workers from all over the world who cleaned up the worst oil disaster in U.S. history.
Although no one has begun to document the number of workers affected, at least
two dozen have gone to court with toxic injury claims in recent years. Among
workers' compensation cases filed by oil spill workers, 34 claimed poisoning,
while 264 claimed respiratory problems and 19 had injuries to the nervous system. About 60 listed
petroleum as the source of injury or illness.
Cruikshank and Baker, among others, volunteered information about their health
problems in a Times review of dozens of Exxon workers who, according to internal
company documents, reported health problems ranging from sore throats to bronchitis and pneumonia during the
cleanup. Other cases were obtained from court records and interviews with
Lawyers believe the actual number of injuries may be far greater than what has
been reported so far. Many, they said, have never associated things like
headaches, cancer, rashes, liver and kidney problems to a chemical exposure that
happened more than a decade ago.
"Chemical poisoning can cause . . . health problems that manifest as many
different symptoms," Los Angeles legal investigator Erin Brockovich said in
a letter sent last week to public interest groups in Alaska, urging potential victims to come forward.
Brockovich, who works for
Masry's law firm, successfully investigated
Groundwater contamination by Pacific Gas & Electric Co. in the town of
Hinkley, Calif., in a case settled
Exxon, now ExxonMobil, says the cleanup operation was "remarkably
safe" and involved a substance -- crude oil -- which is of very low toxicity after a few days of weathering. "Years of study of refinery
workers and others in the oil industry have demonstrated that crude oil can be
worked with safely," the company said. It added that fewer than 25 workers have filed suit for alleged exposures.
"Eight of those
claims have been dismissed by the courts, and seven have been settled."
Public health officials say there was no sign of a health threat to cleanup
workers, though they admit they never had access
to data that would have answered the question conclusively. Investigators
for the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health said they were not
able to conduct detailed surveys of worker illnesses, and said it was
virtually impossible to detect signs of chemical exposure in workers after the
cleanup was over. But most of the air samples they took detected only trace
amounts of the most dangerous toxins, NIOSH said in its report.
The Valdez cleanup involved strong solvents
in addition to the crude oil, which gives off extremely hazardous fumes when it
is fresh. Even weathered oil contains some hazardous metals and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, or PAHs, a group of over 100 compounds, some of which can
cause cancer. These materials could have entered workers' lungs as a mist or
been absorbed through their skin when they hosed down contaminated beaches, some experts say.
But how many suffered health effects may never be
known, in part because Exxon and its cleanup contractor, VECO
government investigators access to medical records, saying at the time they were
too "overwhelmed" to get the data together.
Some of the illness statistics showed up years later, in a confidential document
unearthed in court records. It showed that a
large number of workers visited clinics with upper-respiratory complaints--a
potential warning flag of chemical exposure. Exxon concluded they were a result
not of chemical poisoning but a viral illness--eliminating any obligation to
report the cases to the government and set up a long-term health-monitoring
"The people in charge of it tried to get the records, and had trouble doing
it. And for reasons I don't know, for some reason NIOSH didn't press its
authority to get those records," said Mitchell Singal, who was
NIOSH's medical officer during the oil spill.
In all, there were 6,722 patient visits for respiratory illness. While
some workers may have gone to the clinic more than once, it potentially means
that 40% of the work force had respiratory problems severe enough to see a
Middaugh, Alaska's state epidemiologist, said the state health department
attempted to get viral cultures of sick oil workers from VECO to see if they
matched known viruses circulating in the state. But they were only
VECO officials say they have no recollection now of anyone denying access to
medical records. "There wasn't any time our company took a position not to
cooperate," said Jamie Slack, vice president for human resources.
Carl Reller, a biochemist who worked as an environmental quality control
consultant for the cleanup contractors, sat in on many of the key planning
sessions. He said Exxon lobbied successfully to
avoid having the spill designated a hazardous waste cleanup, which would have
required workers to have 40 hours of training in how to manage the dangerous
materials they would be handling. Federal officials concurred that,
given the reduced toxicity of the weathered oil, four hours' training was
"The decision was based on a conservative premise and not revisited,"
Reller said. "Was this because of legitimate
oversight, incompetence, conspiracy, cost cutting or negligence?
Based on my experience, I would say all of the above."
NIOSH agreed with Exxon's assessment that a virus was likely responsible for the
respiratory problems, which affected not only cleanup workers, but office
personnel and even lawyers.
Middaugh agrees. He said federal investigators took exhaustive air and water
samples to make sure workers weren't being endangered. "It was concluded
there was no risk," he said, "as long as there was meticulous adherence to standards developed by the company and NIOSH and OSHA."
The problem, say many of
those studying the worker health issue, is that adherence
to safety standards was far from meticulous.
Respirators often weren't available, or workers
didn't wear them, which meant dangerous chemicals could be inhaled. Many didn't
wear goggles, which allowed chemicals to be absorbed through the
eyes. Gloves were often discarded because they didn't fit or got in the way, leaving
the skin exposed to absorb toxics.
"Nobody complied with any of the health and
safety rules, and everybody turned a blind eye," said Robert J.
Gryder, a Coast Guard safety officer at the spill who has worked for decades in
the field of hazardous materials handling and training. "They
were issuing rain
suits [as protective gear], and a rain suit is [worthless] as protective
equipment except for one chemical: water."
"In 1989, we did not know what the adverse health effects would be of that
exposure to Prudhoe Bay
crude oil," *
Gryder said. "We simply didn't
know, and we still don't know."
Ailments Range From Cataracts to Lung Cancer
Phyllis LaJoie had worked for years in Alaska's oil fields, and volunteered to
work in Prince William Sound after the spill as a way of paying back. "I
felt responsible when the spill happened," she said.
A former seal hunter and construction worker, LaJoie was put in the decontamination
unit, where she cleaned oily coats, boots and gloves overnight.
"Of course, we were steaming all that stuff into our lungs," she said.
Later, she cleaned up beaches. "They ran out of equipment like masks, and
they told us you could go home, or you could stay
and work without it. We
ended up with little paper masks."
LaJoie and almost everyone around her had a constant cough and runny
went back to Hawaii, but couldn't seem to shake the illness. "I just kept
getting sicker and sicker. Breathing and sinus, stomach, everything."
Finally, she was diagnosed with diabetes, along with emphysema, asthma and an
enlarged liver. She has a bacterial overgrowth in her lower intestine.
"My goodness," she said, "this thing has ruined my life."
Randy Lowe, a commercial fisherman from Soldotna, Alaska, contracted his own
boat to help collect oil during the cleanup for $600 a day.
"Oil was everywhere, and every single day, I would get covered with
it," he said. "When I got done loading a boom, there'd be a foot of
oil in the bottom of my boat, and I'd just shovel it out. You'd drink sodas that had oil on it, you'd smoke a cigarette, it had oil on it, if
you ate a sandwich, it had oil on it.
"When I went out there, I was totally, 100% healthy," Lowe said.
"Between 1990 and '97 I've been in the hospital 58 times. I've had
pancreatitis, liver problems, spleen problems. I had a pancreas attack in '97, I went into septic shock and finally my body shut down. I was in
a coma for 52 days, and after that I had to learn all over again how to walk,
read and talk."
Lowe figures his medical bills, paid almost entirely by Medicaid, have reached
$1.5 million. And he still is unable to work--too
tired, can't concentrate enough.
"I went from making $55,000, $60,000 a year to drawing welfare. That was a
pretty hard thing to swallow for me," he said. "I'm only 41 years old.
I shouldn't be in the shape I'm in."
Jim Reynolds of Hampton, Va., was a mechanic on several oil-skimming boats. He
had been working for three months when he woke up covered in a swollen, itchy
rash, diagnosed as a reaction to the oil.
"And the thing is, it never really went away. Whenever I get hot or sweaty
and irritable, then it comes back."
Stories like these abound. Gryder has seen lung cancer, cataracts, hair loss,
hearing loss, skin rashes and respiratory problems among oil spill workers.
Riki Ott, a marine biologist from Cordova, Alaska, who has worked for years to
document safety and environmental issues related to the spill, was one of the
first to realize that the stories of health problems were similar.
"Back in 1989, I had a number of friends call me and say their son or
daughter had come in from the oil spill cleanup on a break and their urine was
black," Ott said. "And what concerns me is every year since the spill
I have been getting calls from people, and they all have this breathing you can
hear, and they all say they're sick, and they say, 'You know, I think it's from
the work I did on the oil spill.' "
After talking to more than a dozen such people, Ott began to suspect it was no
coincidence that all of them were sick. She flew to Texas to meet with Dr.
William Rea, who had treated many former cleanup workers and believed many of
them were suffering the cumulative effects of chemical exposure to oil and
solvents. Eventually, Ott contacted Masry and Schneider and persuaded them to try to find more injured
workers and file lawsuits on their behalf.
Few of the previous lawsuits filed against Exxon ever went anywhere, including
suits filed by LaJoie and Lowe, which were dismissed before going to trial.
Experts like Rea were countered by medical experts put forward by Exxon, who
said workers suffered no significant medical damage, or if they did, it could
have come from anything.