The April 20, 2010 explosion of the Deepwater Horizon oil rig used by BP (formerly British Petroleum) in the Gulf of Mexico killed 11 people and spilled hundreds of millions of liters of oil over a three-month period. raw.
Rodney Boblitt is one of the tens of thousands of people who were then mobilized to try to protect the coasts of neighboring states.
The 54-year-old, who worked for the Florida Environmental Protection Agency, was first assigned to pick up debris.
He was then tasked with patrolling the beaches of the region, over more than twenty kilometers, in order to report the stains that occur daily with the arrival of oil.
His clothes, he said, were sprayed as he rode a small all-terrain vehicle.
The Floridian says he is convinced of having been exposed, in the same process, to dispersing agents that BP used extensively in an attempt to fragment the oil slick and accelerate its degradation.
“We were told it was perfectly harmless, it was a completely inert product,” recalls Boblitt, who was instructed not to wear the protective equipment he had, in an interview.
“The local authorities didn’t want us to scare the tourists” as people canceled their vacations in droves, he said.
Mr. Boblitt says he quickly developed respiratory problems and skin irritations that he initially attributed to the long 16-hour days.
After six months, however, he finds himself overwhelmed with fatigue. His respiratory problems persisted and were accompanied by memory loss and dizziness which eventually, after two years, forced him to leave his position at the agency.
It was not until 2015, after seeing a report on the health problems of people who had worked on the same cleaning operation, that he realized exactly what was happening to him.
“Everything they were saying was consistent with what was happening to me,” said Mr. Boblitt, who says he was diagnosed with encephalopathy related to exposure to toxic substances.
With the help of lawyers, he is now seeking compensation from BP for his long-term health issues after winning $1,300 from the company in a class settlement in 2012 for his health problems. short term.
“To me, that sum was monkey money. The doctor took it for me at my next appointment,” says Boblitt, who needs employee support to deal with his memory loss.
Regina Brown, a resident of Mississippi, was also employed in 2010 to counter the oil spill.
The 58-year-old says she spent weeks on boats struggling to contain the spread of oil with floating barriers.
The irritation and breathing problems that started at the time have persisted over time, notes Ms. Brown, who now has multiple lesions on her legs.
An inflammatory disease that two doctors attribute, according to her, to an exposure to toxic products makes her life impossible.
Ms Brown also holds BP responsible for its difficulties and has taken legal action to seek compensation with the support of a law firm.
Like Mr. Boblitt, his efforts have so far been met with opposition from the oil giant, which has won virtually every similar case.
Jerry Sprague, a Louisiana attorney representing more than 600 similarly situated people, notes that ex-workers who seek damages for chronic ailments must sue the company individually, making it harder for them.
BP, he adds, has succeeded in convincing the courts that claimants must be able, in order to substantiate their claim, to demonstrate the level of exposure to contaminants they suffered at the time.
For lack of having undergone tests, many respondents are unable to make this demonstration, notes the lawyer, who says to record failure after failure in this type of file. “My success rate is zero,” Mr. Sprague said spitefully.
According to the daily The Guardian, which recently devoted a long dossier to the situation, thousands of lawsuits have been dismissed in this way. Only one would have been accepted.
Tom Devine, director of legal affairs for the Government Accountability Project, laments that the oil giant has shown “unbounded aggressiveness” in court.
He says he has met in various investigations dozens of former workers made permanently ill by the 2010 clean-up operation.
Loss of breathing capacity, recurrent headaches, neurological disorders are among the regularly reported symptoms, he says.
A study conducted by the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences of thousands of people who participated in the Deepwater Horizon cleanup operation indicated in 2017 that those who had been exposed to the dispersants were more likely to develop coughs, rashes eyes or skin.
The same study noted that the majority of workers who reported such symptoms were symptom-free after three years, while pointing to a core group of respondents who continued to experience serious health problems several years later.
BP declined to answer questions from La Presse, arguing that it was impossible to comment on the case as proceedings are pending in the courts.
The company has already paid nearly $70 billion since 2010 in disaster compensation, including massive federally imposed penalties and compensation for affected states and businesses.
The sum includes a $65 million package paid to more than 22,500 participants in the cleanup as part of the 2012 class settlement for short-term health issues.
Mr. Boblitt is irritated that large sums have gone to “all sorts of causes” while needy people like him are left behind.
“Why did BP agree to pay tens of billions of dollars if the company is not convinced of the harmfulness of its actions? “, he concludes.
April 20, 2010: explosion on the Deepwater Horizon platform. Eleven dead.
Until August 2, 2010: 4.9 million barrels of crude spilled offshore.
September 19, 2010: the well is permanently sealed.
Riki Ott thought she had found her paradise in the mid-1980s when she discovered Alaska.
Won over by the beauty of the landscapes and the welcome of the population, the American, freshly graduated in marine toxicology, decided to buy a boat and embark on commercial fishing with a partner, despite their lack of experience.
The integration into the small community of Cordova, which has fun with their learning mistakes, is going well and the profits are there after a few years.
But his life took a completely different turn in 1989 when the Exxon Valdez hit reefs in Prince William Sound, spilling tens of millions of liters of crude oil that threatened to devastate everything.
A local official knocks on his door at 7 a.m. to let him know that “the big spill” people have been dreading has just happened.
Residents, anxious to protect their livelihood and their environment, threw themselves into action to control the oil spill.
The authorities’ preparations for such a disaster are inadequate and many clean-up workers find themselves dangerously exposed to the oil and dispersants used, says Ott.
Many develop, underlines the toxicologist, respiratory problems and skin irritations that will continue to haunt them for years. Neurological disorders are also reported.
When she learned in April 2010 that an oil rig operated by BP had exploded in the Gulf of Mexico, releasing an oil spill that threatened the coasts of several states, she left for Louisiana.
When she arrives there, she notices that the scene looks strangely like the one she had experienced in Alaska.
BP, with the approval of the authorities, uses the same strategies to stem the oil spill as Exxon and dumps, notes Ms. Ott, “massive” quantities of dispersants in an attempt to break up the oil slick and slow its progress.
BP, together with local authorities, tries to be reassuring about the risks posed by the use of dispersants by noting that this type of product is little more dangerous than “dish soap”, underlines the toxicologist.
It multiplies the interventions on the spot to sensitize the people assigned to the cleaning and the population on the need to protect themselves from the products arriving on the banks.
Like other scientists, Ms. Ott is also urging BP to set up a biomonitoring program to monitor the level of exposure of workers to toxic products over the long term.
The company instead favors air and water analyzes that do not reflect, she says, the seriousness of the situation.
BP refused to answer questions from La Presse on this subject, citing the legal proceedings brought by ex-workers.
As in the days of the Exxon Valdez, many people working on ships or on the coasts to clear the premises of oil develop coughs and skin irritations.
Once again, many see their symptoms persist over time and often worsen, notes Ms. Ott, who is campaigning today to considerably restrict the use of dispersing agents in the event of an oil spill and to improve protection and preparedness of emergency responders.
Alert Project, the organization Ms. Ott created to help educate people and elected officials about the risks of oil spills, filed a lawsuit in 2020 to, among other things, force the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to update its regulations at about dispersing agents.
A court ordered the organization to proceed by the end of May, said Ms. Ott, who insists on the accumulation of scientific data showing the toxicity of these products in combination with crude oil and the resulting environmental risks.
The American Petroleum Institute notes on a website that these products remain “one of the most effective responses” to an accidental oil spill “when used appropriately”.
Ms. Ott ignores the interventions of the oil industry, which insists on the possibility of proceeding with dispersants in a safe manner, both for animals and for humans.
“We must act now to restrict their use,” she concludes.