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[GreenYes] Fwd: [empoweringdemocracy] Another Valdez Legacy

>From: Charlie Cray <>
>Mailing-List: list; contact 
>Los Angeles Times
>November 5, 2001
>Exxon Oil Spill's Cleanup Crews Share Years of Illness
>by Kim Murphy
>VALDEZ, Alaska -- The toll of the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill is a sadly
>familiar one: 250,000 dead birds, 2,800 sea otters, 300 harbor
>seals--all victims of the oil tanker that ran over a reef late one April
>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 families.
>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 ground-water contamination
>by Pacific Gas & Electric Co. in the town of Hinkley, Calif., in a case
>settled in 1996.
>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 Inc., denied 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 program.
>"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 doctor.
>John 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 given 17.
>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
>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 adequate.
>"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
>"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
>nose. She went back to Hawaii, but couldn't seem to shake the illness.
>"I just kept getting sicker and sicker. Breathing and sinus, stomach,
>Finally, she was diagnosed with diabetes, along with emphysema, asthma
>and an enlarged liver. She has a bacterial overgrowth in her lower
>"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
>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
>"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.
>In the only case that approached trial--involving GarryStubblefield, a
>crane operator who was exposed to diesel fumes and heavy oil mist during
>the cleanup--Exxon negotiated a secret settlement for a reported $2
>Stubblefield hasn't worked since. He gasps when he breathes, gets spasms
>when he is exposed to perfume, cigarette smoke, truck exhaust. "He'll
>never breathe right again. Never," said his former wife, Melissa
>Stubblefield. "If he even starts to laugh, he gets to coughing so he
>gasps for air."
>All Safety Procedures Followed, Exxon Says
>Most health officials remain unconvinced that the cleanup left anyone
>"Right after the spill occurred, there was a tremendous focus on the
>potential toxicity of the oil. There was a question that if the oil
>contained substances that could potentially harm workers on a long-term
>basis, or on a severe short-term basis, and induce sterility or cancer
>or birth defects, then it would be unethical to undertake cleanup at
>all," recalled Middaugh, the state epidemiologist.
>"But in a very short period of time, all of the parties, NIOSH, the
>American Federation of Labor, OSHA, all looked at it and said, this oil
>has not been refined, it's naturally occurring crude oil, and under
>proper conditions of worker safety, of injury prevention, with personal
>protective equipment, training and oversight, there should be no
>component of the oil that should provide any toxicity that would induce
>any of these long-term problems," he said.
>Singal also doubts there were long-term health threats. "Most of the
>illnesses were, as far as we could determine at the time . . .
>associated with living in close quarters," he said.
>"We kept hearing about chronic effects later on. I couldn't think of any
>reason why it would have been related to the cleanup activity. But I
>can't say one way or another, because we never looked into it."
>In Exxon's view, one of the most important stories of the cleanup is
>what didn't happen: the workers in heavy gear who didn't fall into the
>water and drown, who didn't suffer hypothermia or get injured by heavy
>"Safety was the No. 1 concern. We took all the proper safety procedures
>to protect workers," said company spokesman Tom Cirigliano. "We have
>paid more than $300 million to more than 11,000 Alaskans and to others
>who were directly affected by the spill. This is not a company that by
>any sense of the imagination ran and hid."
>Copyright 2001 Los Angeles Times
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