Joe Yerkes is a Florida fisherman who joined BP’s Vessels of Opportunity (VOO) oil cleanup program because he was put out of work by BP’s 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil disaster.
Following the 2010 explosion and sinking of the Deepwater Horizon oil rig, which killed 11, a sea-floor oil gusher flowed for 87 days until it was capped nearly three months later.
The disaster, which began on April 20, 2010, released at least 4.9 million barrels of oil into the Gulf of Mexico, coupled with 1.9 million gallons of toxic chemical dispersants that BP and the US Coast Guard used.
Yerkes was exposed to both oil and dispersants while working to clean up oil during his stint in the VOO program.
“I have spent the years since the spill happened literally trying to survive,” Yerkes told Truthout. “I’ve lost five friends now who were also exposed to BP’s oil and dispersants, who were unable to seek proper treatment to extract the chemicals from their bodies before the exposure killed them.”
Not long after his exposure, Yerkes became violently ill, started bleeding from his nose and ears, and began vomiting blood. When he couldn’t get well, he had his blood tested and found it contained high levels of chemicals, which his physician attributed to BP’s oil disaster.
Following the advice of his attending physician, Yerkes was forced to move away from the Gulf, to northern Georgia. Now he must regularly give himself intravenous treatments of saline flushes and various medications. “I have chronic headaches, a fever, and suffer chronic unbearable pain in my muscles and joints, and have had chemical pneumonia twice so far.”
For large numbers of fishermen and coastal residents living in the four-state impact zone of BP’s oil spill, the disaster has never ended.
Four years on, they, along with marine life and the broader ecosystem, continue to show clear signs of the chronic impact of the largest marine oil disaster in US history.
Dead Dolphins, Ailing Tuna, Sea Turtle Near Extinction
Oil from BP’s disaster is now linked to heart defects in both tuna and amberjack, according to a recent National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) study.
“We can now say with certainty that oil causes cardiotoxicity in fish,” Stanford University fisheries biologist Barbara Block said during a news conference on the study, which was also published in the esteemed Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
A recent University of South Florida study shows oil from BP’s disaster has floated underwater all the way down to Florida’s Sanibel Island (nearly all the way to the southern tip of Florida), sickening fish along the way. Meanwhile, a large mat of submerged oil, also confirmed as being from BP’s disaster, was found on a Florida beach before over 1,300 pounds of it were removed.
Insects living in wetland grasses along Louisiana’s coast that was oiled in the aftermath of BP’s disaster are still dying, according to a recent study by a Louisiana State University entomologist. The recent deaths, she says, are a result of exposure to oil that has remained in the marsh almost four years after the disaster began.
BP’s oil continues to take its toll on other areas of the Louisiana marsh, where people living in low-lying coastal communities are having to contemplate moving, hence abandoning their culture and way of life, due to the erosion of oiled marsh coupled with rising seas from climate change.
Despite all of this ongoing evidence of BP’s deleterious impact on the Gulf of Mexico region, President Obama’s Environmental Protection Agency has decided to allow the oil giant back into Gulf waters to search for more oil leases.
The impact of the BP disaster is not going away: Crude oil persists in the environment for, in some cases, decades. A full 25 years after the Exxon Valdez disaster in Alaska, the ongoing presence of relatively fresh oil in Prince William Sound continues to surprise scientists.
Within a few months of the Deepwater Horizon disaster, dead marine life began washing ashore along the oil impact zone. (Photo: Erika Blumenfeld)
Migratory and reproductive cycles of regional wildlife continue to be severely affected, and at least one species of sea turtles in the area is now nearing extinction, according to a recent report by the National Wildlife Federation (NWF). Migratory patterns of turtles, as well as other species, were impacted by the massive amount of oil injected into the region.
“We remain particularly concerned about impacts of the oil on bottlenose dolphins,” the report, titled “Four Years into the Gulf Oil Disaster: Still Waiting for Restoration,” reads. “As the continued poor health of these predators at the top of the food chain may indicate, problems in the ecosystem as a whole.”
Dolphin deaths have spiked since BP’s disaster began in 2010, and their strandings, like this one in Barataria Bay, Louisiana, continue their upward trend. (Photo: Jonathan Henderson, Gulf Restoration Network)
According to the report, more than 900 dolphins have been found dead or stranded in the impact zone of the disaster since it began, and in 2013, dolphins were still stranding at more than three times the average annual rates they were prior to the spill.
Many of the dolphins in the NWF study were severely ill, underweight, anemic, and showing signs of liver and lung disease, with many of them so ill they did not survive while being tracked by the group.
These findings mirror those from the NOAA study on dolphins, which found them to have the same health issues.
Fishermen in Lousiana and Mississippi have told Truthout that they remain concerned about ongoing health defects they are finding in crab, shrimp and fish.
The NWF report shows that sea turtle deaths have spiked dramatically since the disaster began. It also logs the negative impact on the health and mortality of tuna, red snapper, mahi-mahi, blue crab, oysters, brown pelicans, common loons, coral, foraminifera, Gulf killifish, seaside sparrows, sperm whales and white pelicans.
Human Health Impact
Yerkes listed all of the health issues he has suffered since his exposure to BP’s oil and dispersants:
I have gone through three and a half years of detox; IV drips, bleeding from every opening in my body; taking up to 40 pills a day; vertigo; headaches; ongoing skin lesions that never heal; neurological and cellular damage; waking up daily with my face in the toilet; lethargy; sleeplessness; crippling and constant joint and muscle pain; chemical pneumonia; and the mental anguish that has resulted from fighting sickness for almost four years now.
Dr Riki Ott, a toxicologist, marine biologist, and Exxon Valdez survivor told Truthout she sees clear indications of widespread toxic chemical exposure across the four-state impact zone of BP’s oil disaster (Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Florida).
“It’s pretty clear to me, after spending a year in the Gulf coastal communities during 2010 and 2011, that the suite of illnesses that developed during this time were above and beyond the background level of illnesses incurred in the Gulf,” Ott said.
Ott added that people she is seeing along the roughly 1,000-mile impact zone are all consistently describing these same symptoms of exposure to chemicals in the oil and dispersants.
“Medical literature supports that these are the symptoms, and I would expect to see increased rates of early-term miscarriages for women, early developmental issues for children born to women who were exposed to breathing these fumes and vapors, and also continuing chemical hypersensitivity,” Ott said.
Since the spill began, Truthout has interviewed hundreds of coastal residents, fishermen and oil cleanup workers whose medical records, like Yerkes’, document toxic chemical exposure that they blame on BP’s oil and the toxic chemical dispersants the oil giant used on the spill.
The US Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) lists the toxic components commonly found in chemicals in crude oil, and several of these chemicals have been found in the blood of people living in the impact zone of BP’s disaster.
Toxicologist Dr. Susan Shaw agrees with the CDC that the toxicity of the chemicals of both the oil and the dispersants is clear.
“BP told the public that Corexit [oil dispersant] was ‘as harmless as Dawn dishwashing liquid’,” Dr. Shaw, who is with the State University of New York, told Truthout. “But BP and the EPA clearly knew about the toxicity of the Corexit dispersants long before this spill.”
Also a toxicologist in the university’s School of Public Health, Shaw has been studying the health effects of chemical exposure for 30 years. She explained that BP’s Material Safety Data Sheets for Corexit warned that the dispersant posed high and immediate human health hazards.
“Five of the Corexit ingredients are linked to cancer, 33 are associated with skin irritation from rashes to burns, 33 are linked to eye irritation, 11 are, or are suspected of being, potential respiratory toxins or irritants, and 10 are suspected kidney toxins,” Shaw added. “BP’s own testing found that workers were exposed to a possible human carcinogen from the dispersant.”
Dr. Wilma Subra, a McArthur Fellow Genius Award-winning toxicologist in New Iberia, Louisiana, has tested the blood of BP cleanup workers and residents.
“Ethylbenzene, m-,p-Xylene and hexane are volatile organic chemicals that are present in the BP crude oil,” Dr. Subra told Truthout in March, 2012. “Exposure has been prolonged enough to create long-term effects, such as liver damage, kidney damage, and damage to the nervous system. So the presence of these chemicals in the blood indicates exposure.”
Yerkes, now into his second year of walking with a cane to assist his balance, is plagued with $85,000 of debt for money he’s had to spend on alternative health care “in order to save my life.”
“I’ve been down all the time, fighting, and not knowing what to do next,” he told Truthout. “I’m sick every morning and every night . . . so I’m fighting my way through and showing up for work to get the paycheck, and seeing my young daughter’s face is what motivates me to get my face out of the toilet and get to my job.”
BP provided Truthout with its response to the impact of the spill on human health, as well as responses to both the LSU insect study and the NOAA tuna study.
The company cited comments made by Dale Sandler, the head of the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences’ (NIEHS) epidemiology branch, in January.
“Residents and oil spill cleanup workers worry about health symptoms,” Sandler said at a conference in Mobile, Alabama.
But she also said blood test results are showing levels of benzene, toluene and other oil-related volatile organic compounds at similar levels in residents along the Gulf Coast as in the United States population at large.
The NIEHS study, of which Sandler is the principle investigator, has received funding from BP.
On the heatlh and safety of the cleanup workers, BP provided this statement:
BP worked closely with OSHA, the US National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) and other US government agencies to take extraordinary measures to safeguard the health and safety of responders. Workers were provided safety training and appropriate personal protective equipment (PPE), and were monitored by federal agencies and BP to measure potential exposure levels and help ensure compliance with established safety procedures. Workers applying dispersants received training on work procedures and PPE usage designed to minimize exposures, and were provided respirators and other PPE.
More than 30,000 air monitoring samples were collected by the Coast Guard, OSHA, NIOSH, and BP as part of a comprehensive air monitoring program to evaluate the potential for human exposure to dispersant and oil compounds. The results showed that response worker and public exposures to dispersants were well below levels that could pose a health or safety concern
On the LSU study showing that insects living in wetland grasses along Louisiana’s coast that was oiled in the aftermath of BP’s disaster are still dying, BP had this to say:
The researchers acknowledged many unknowns related to their preliminary findings, including what process would cause levels of naphthalene and methyl-naphthalene to increase over time. However, extensive sampling and testing conducted in 2010 indicates that weathering processes removed virtually all of these compounds from the Macondo oil before it made landfall. The trace levels of naphthalene and methyl-naphthalene that remain in weathered Macondo oil are no different than background levels from other sources, and there is no known process that causes these compounds to spontaneously form from other oil constituents that are degrading.
The paper provides no evidence to suggest a population-level impact on tuna, amberjack or other pelagic fish species in the Gulf of Mexico. The oil concentrations used in these lab experiments were rarely seen in the Gulf during or after the Deepwater Horizon accident. Analysis of publicly-available data collected during the Response and Natural Resource Damage Assessment efforts during the timeframe covered by this study show that only five to 10 percent of the water samples collected exceeded the low end of the concentrations tested, and only one percent of these samples were recorded at the high end of the concentrations tested. In addition, the authors themselves note that it is nearly impossible to determine the early life impact to these species. To overcome this challenge, it would take more information than what’s presented in this paper.
The Science, the Feds, and the State Respond
Dr. Ed Cake, a biological oceanographer and marine biologist with Gulf Environmental Associates, believes it will likely take the Gulf decades to recover from the BP disaster.
“The impacts of the Ixtoc-1 blowout in the Bay of Campeche in 1979 are still being felt,” Cake, referring to a large oil spill near the Mexican coast, told Truthout. “And there are bays there where the oysters have still not returned. My prediction is we will be dealing with the impacts of this [BP] spill for several decades to come, and it will outlive me.”
Dr. Ed Cake, a biological oceanographer and marine biologist, on an oystersampling trip off the coast of Louisiana. (Photo: Erika Blumenfeld)
Cake was skeptical of BP’s response to the NOAA report.
“These folks are being paid by BP to say these things,” he said of the company’s response. “The issue is how much funding has there been to fund long-term, wide-breadth studies, and who is willing to fund these studies? Probably nobody.”
Cake mentioned that three years ago, it was being said it would take seven to 10 years for impacted marine species to recover, and it’s important to remember we are now only at four years since the disaster began.
“That time span of seven to 10 years would apply to shrimp, blue crab and tuna, and I’m not willing to say everything is hunky dory out there, I can’t,” he added. “So instead we look at dolphin, killifish and some others, and they are all saying that something terrible has happened. So that’s where I am, and we’re still finding out when we’ll really know, and when we do know, will it be too late to do anything?”
Cake cited a study which showed that the dispersants BP used made the oil 52 times more toxic than the oil itself, then added:
Oyster and crab fisheries are still way down, and shrimp are still below 2010 levels . . . so there is something that happened out there, we all know because we could smell it, feel it and see it, and it came from BP’s well. So there is a direct cause and effect correlation, and a lot of shellfish and finfish and mammals, including turtles, in the area have been impacted.
The NWF report mirrors much of what Cake said:
Given the huge quantity of oil that remains unaccounted for, the fact that even small amounts of oil can have significant biological effects, some of which may manifest themselves over time, and the unprecedented use of dispersants, the full scope of the Deepwater Horizon disaster on the Gulf ecosystem will likely unfold for years or even decades to come. It is essential that careful monitoring of the Gulf ecosystem continue and that mitigation of damages and restoration of degraded and weakened ecosystems begin as soon as possible.
Last August, Louisiana’s Republican Governor Bobby Jindal blasted BP when he said, “Three and a half years later, BP is spending more money – I want you to hear this – they are spending more money on television commercials than they have on actually restoring the natural resources they impacted.”
Meanwhile, as far away from the blowout site as Florida, researchers continue to find oil in both Tampa Bay and Sarasota Bay.
In Louisiana, according to the Louisiana Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority (CPRA), more than 200 miles of shoreline have “some degree of oiling,” including 14 miles that are moderately or heavily oiled. From March through August 2013, over three million pounds of oiled material have been collected in Louisiana, more than double the amount over the same time period the prior year.
These facts contradict BPs claims that the NOAA study provides no evidence to suggest a population-level impact on tuna, amberjack or other pelagic fish species as large amounts of oil across the impact zone will clearly impact marine life that comes into contact with it.
In addition, contrary to BP’s statement about the LSU insect study, the CPRA reported that “investigations into the chemical composition of MC252 [BP's Macondo well] oil samples demonstrate that submerged oil is NOT substantially weathered or depleted of most PAH’s [polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons],” and “disputes . . . findings relied on by the USCG [US Coast Guard] that Deepwater Horizon oil is nontoxic”.
The agency has also expressed concerns that “submerged oil may continue to pose long-term risk to near-shore ecosystems.”
Numerous other impacts have been documented since the disaster began, including genetic disruptions for Gulf killifish, harm to deepwater corals,and the die-off of tiny foraminifera that are an important part of the Gulf’s food chain, all of which, while having been reported before, were again noted in the NWF report.
These facts contradict BP’s aforementioned claims about the NOAA study.
Ongoing studies continue to reveal toxins from BP’s spill in water, soil and seafood samples.
Regarding BP’s statement about safety precautions taken and protective equipment provided for cleanup workers, numerous studies have shown the inherent toxicity of the dispersants, crude oil itself and the far more toxic combination of the two. Furthermore, it is well known that cleanup workers rarely wore any protective equipment, and there are numerous documented instances of BP preventing workers from using respirators.
But Joe Yerkes, like thousands of other fishermen and oil cleanup workers, does not need a study to tell him something is very, very wrong.
“Up until this new job I was in detox and melting away without a purpose in life, but now providing for my daughter is my sole purpose and to take care of her and raise her the best I can until this eventually kills me,” he concluded. “This shit haunts me everyday and keeps me from doing what I want to do. This is going to be my demise, there’s no doubt about it.”