Cleanup or Cover-up? What BP and the EPA Did to the Gulf

In summer 2011, a year after bp capped its disastrous Macondo oil well in the Gulf of Mexico and the national media had moved on, the Government Accountability Project (GAP) received a letter as unexpected as it was urgent.

Michael Robichaux, a Louisiana physician treating individuals made sick by the disaster, explained: “This has been one of the best-kept secrets that I have observed in my lifetime. I feel it is my duty as both a physician and citizen of our state and nation to alert you to the horrendous health problems I am observing.”

Nothing should have surprised this Gulf Coast resident of almost 70 years and former state senator who practiced medicine for more than four decades in communities that frequently experienced oil spills. But 2010 was different—beyond anything Robichaux had seen. He was treating patients for clusters of symptoms unlike anything he had treated in the past.

“The common denominator in these illnesses appears to be the dispersants that were used to ‘hide’ the oil released during the spill,” Robichaux said.

JULY Washington Spectator BP Cleanup

He was referring to the unprecedented use of Corexit, hailed by BP and the federal government as the most effective tool to “clean up” the spill. In theory, dispersants break down the oil into smaller droplets that can be more easily spread throughout the sea, effectively preventing the oil from hitting Gulf shorelines.

Three years after the disaster,
evidence indicates that the chemical used to disperse the oil in the Gulf of Mexico, Corexit, was more destructive to human health and the environment that the spill itself.

Two years after the disaster, peer-reviewed scientific research had found that Corexit—which is banned in the U.K. and is one of the most toxic dispersants approved for use by the EPA—merely makes the oil disappear below the water’s surface.

Unlike crude oil, the dispersed oil cannot be removed. It sinks to the seafloor and spreads throughout the ecosystem while the dispersant potentiates its toxicity. And a deadly synergy makes the oil and dispersant 52 times more toxic than the crude oil itself, according to studies done by Georgia Technical Institute and the Autonomous University of Aguascalientes, Mexico.

GAP is a Washington, D.C.-based, whistleblower protection and advocacy group. In response to Robichaux’s letter, it began a 20-month investigation into Corexit’s impact on human health and the health of the environment.

In partnership with the Louisiana Environmental Action Network (LEAN), GAP worked with 25 whistleblowers from the cleanup’s front lines, and studied internal agency debates obtained through extensive Freedom of Information Act document requests, to piece together a history of the worst environmental disaster in U.S. history.

What GAP found contradicts the official record. Three years after the disaster, evidence it compiled indicates that Corexit, as it was used in the Gulf of Mexico, was more destructive to human health and the environment that the spill itself.

Anyone who lives or vacations along the Gulf, consumes Gulf seafood, or resides on any coast near offshore-drilling operations should be especially alarmed: BP and the federal government intend to use Corexit or similar dispersants as the primary cleanup tool for all future oil spills.

‘Don’t worry—it’s as safe as dishwashing detergent’

During the response to the spill, BP frequently compared Corexit to Dawn dishwashing detergent. And the government marveled at how quickly the oil had been cleaned up.

After the well was capped, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) announced that Corexit had worked its chemical magic and 70 percent of the oil “had been burned, skimmed, recovered from the wellhead, or dispersed [or] was in the process of being evaporated.” The agency quickly withdrew this hasty assessment after scientists discovered extensive underwater plumes resulting from the use of the dispersant.

On the same day the well was capped and NOAA announced that the oil was “gone,” U.S. Senator Barbara Mikulski (D-MD) asked during a Senate hearing: “Are dispersants the DDT or Agent Orange of the oil spill?”

It was a sobering (and prescient) question. Just as little was known about the defoliant the U.S. military sprayed in Vietnam, little was known about the risks associated with Corexit. Under regulations dating back to 1984, the government continues to approve dispersants without any independent assessment of their risks, relying solely on data provided by manufacturers.

Lisa Jackson, the EPA administrator at the time, also had misgivings. “I can honestly say I don’t think I’ve made a tougher decision than the one regarding use of chemical dispersant,” she acknowledged.

Yet in 2010, BP and the government proceeded with Corexit. Using the Gulf as a giant laboratory, they applied dispersant directly to the leaking wellhead and sprayed it across thousands of square miles of Gulf waters.

Then, despite mounting evidence that the oil was ever present, BP and the government launched an unrestrained campaign with an undisguised goal: restore public confidence.

The region generates nearly $20 billion from tourism annually. Gulf beaches and fisheries opened within weeks of the well being capped, with reassurance from federal and state governments—and BP—that environmental and public health risks had been addressed.

Washington Spectator BP Cleanup hand creditThe misinformation campaign
Using a campaign of “citizen whistleblowing” that sounded the alarm about risks posed by oil and dispersants, LEAN’s Marylee Orr and Wilma Subra worked to counter the false advertising campaigns that claimed that the Gulf was ready for tourism.

Both activists are featured in Peggy Frankland’s Women Pioneers of the Louisiana Movement. Subra, a chemist, received a MacArthur “genius grant” in 1999 for helping communities fight chemical threats. Orr co-founded LEAN in 1986 after her son was born with a lung disease. Today, with assistance from her two sons, she runs the statewide network of more than 100 groups and 1,700 individual members.

LEAN became the lifeline for communities impacted by the spill. Within weeks of the oil-well explosion, its staff began compiling a database of human-health impacts from Corexit and oil exposure, provided community health workshops, purchased respirators for local fisherman hired to work on the cleanup, and conducted human-health and environmental monitoring that belied official claims and government data.

Subra researched the risks associated with Louisiana sweet crude and Corexit. “The combined short-term health symptoms include acute respiratory problems, skin rashes, cardiovascular impacts, gastrointestinal impacts, and short-term loss of memory. Long-term impacts include cancer, decreased lung function, and kidney damage,” she wrote in the GAP report.

Air monitoring by LEAN detected concentrations of hydrogen sulfide exceeding the levels for physical health symptoms by 100-120 times—undercutting BP and government claims that air-quality levels were normal and worker respirators were not needed.

With Robichaux’s assistance, LEAN conducted 100 blood tests. Subjects ranged from cleanup workers and divers to wives who washed their husbands’ soiled work clothes to residents who lived in communities subjected to aerial Corexit spraying.

It was not surprising the same chemicals LEAN had found in the Gulf environment—such as methylpentanes, hexane, and isooctane—were detected in the blood samples that Robichaux collected.

Two employees of federal agencies anticipated these problems early on.

A Centers for Disease Control senior environmental health specialist inquired within the agency: “Have any of you heard whether OSHA/NIOSH is looking at the [Material Safety Data Sheets] for these chemicals as well with an eye to human exposure concerns?”

The information the CDC specialist inquired about was, in fact, readily available. The federally required Material Safety Data Sheets (MSDS, see sidebar) created by Corexit’s manufacturer NALCO describes the potential hazard as “High.” The primary ingredient in Corexit—2-Butoxyethanol—could be carcinogenic. It could cause “injury to red blood cells (hemolysis), the kidney or the liver.”

As Corexit was being sprayed across the Gulf, Hugh Kaufman, an EPA senior policy analyst, took on his own agency and publicly warned that the dispersant was a risk to public health and the environment.

“EPA now is taking the position that they really don’t know how dangerous it is, even though if you read the label, it tells you how dangerous it is,” Kaufman said. “It’s very dangerous, and it’s an economic protector of BP, not an environmental protector of the public.”

“EPA now is taking the position that they really don’t know how dangerous [Corexit] is.” —EPA analyst Hugh Kaufman

Yet as the magnitude of the spill and the government’s attempt to remediate it became apparent, environmental advocacy groups and other activists were largely on their own, scrambling to obtain scientific data on the toxic combination of dispersant and oil to which cleanup workers and Gulf residents were being exposed.

For example, at the time EPA approved Corexit, its ingredients were considered proprietary. It wasn’t until Earthjustice sued the EPA that the chemical contents of Corexit were released to the public.

In its 2011 report, Earthjustice researchers wrote that of the 57 ingredients in Corexit, “five chemicals are associated with cancer, 33 are associated with skin irritation from rashes and burns; 33 are linked to eye irritation; 11 are suspected of being potential respiratory toxins or irritants; 10 are suspected kidney toxins; eight are suspected or known to be toxic to aquatic organisms; and five are suspected to have a moderate acute toxicity to fish.”

While he was working with LEAN, Robichaux continued to see patients: “Common symptoms experienced by my patients include impotence both in young and older men, memory loss, headaches, extreme fatigue, irritability, abdominal cramps, seizures, and a trance-like state that many patients and their family members have observed,” he wrote.

Robichaux also described a three-year-old boy who was treated at a Baton Rouge hospital and discharged without a conclusive diagnosis after swimming in a beachside pool in Orange Beach, Alabama, where workers were cleaning oil-soaked booms. The child became violently ill, Robichaux wrote, and doctors initially believed he was suffering from a severe urinary tract infection and performed surgery because they suspected kidney stones. The physicians refused, however, when the boy’s father requested a blood test to check for chemical exposure. Tested after his release from the hospital, the boy’s blood registered the second-highest level of toxicity of anyone tested under Robichaux’s supervision.

Workers sent out blind and exposed
Yet BP and state and federal agencies reassured the public about Corexit and failed to provide workers with warnings as required by federal law.

In 2012, a confidential whistleblower informed GAP that federally required worker resource manuals that included the Corexit MSDS were either not delivered or were removed from BP worksites early in the cleanup, as health problems began. During a meeting with LEAN and GAP representatives at their headquarters in Houston last July, BP officials declined to discuss the disappearance of the resource manuals, on the grounds of ongoing litigation.

Clint Guidry, president of the Louisiana Shrimp Association, was livid: “BP sent them out there in the blind. These are fishermen who before the BP oil spill had never worked in those conditions a day in their life, and they were not informed about the dangers of the chemicals that they would be exposed to until after they were exposed. They were out there on top of the oil with basic hardhats and steel-booted toes until July.”

Guidry is familiar with hazardous chemicals. For a decade, he worked as a superintendent in oil refineries. When he learned that the government was using Corexit on the spill, he pleaded for its use to be halted, and that safety equipment be provided for members of the association he directs.

According to Guidry, Robert Bourgeois, an occupational health physician hired by the Department of Health and Human Services to work on the cleanup, rejected his request for respirators.

“The toxicity of Corexit is about the same as dish soap.” —BP CEO Bob Dudley

Individual cleanup workers making the same request apparently did no better. Thirteen state and federal agencies worked in the Unified Command coordinating the clean up, but workers answered to employees of BP and rig owner Transocean, who supervised daily operations. Nearly half of GAP witnesses reported they were threatened with termination when they tried to wear respirators or additional safety equipment on the job.

Why? The director of EPA’s National Planning Preparedness Division explained in an internal e-mail obtained by GAP: “BP is concerned about the perception of any workers wearing respirators would depict when there is no documented threat.”

As recently as May 2013, BP still contended: “Based on extensive monitoring conducted by BP and the federal agencies, BP is not aware of any data showing worker or public exposures to dispersants at levels that would pose a health or safety concern.”

In fact, BP’s own testing detected 2-butoxyethanol in more than 20 percent of offshore workers at levels two times greater than federal worker-safety standards. The same chemical was linked to severe health problems for workers exposed to Corexit during the Exxon Valdez cleanup, ranging from respiratory and nervous system damage to neurological problems.

Jorey Danos, a cleanup worker, described his encounter with a BP supervisor.

“When a BP representative came up on the speedboat and asked if we need anything,” Danos said, “I again explained my concerns about breathing in the Corexit and asked him for a respirator … He explained, ‘If you wear a respirator, it is bringing attention to yourself because no one else is wearing respirators, and you can get fired for that.’”

Danos was sprayed with Corexit four times while working on the cleanup. Blood tests found alarmingly high levels of chemicals linked to the oil spill in Danos’ system. At age 32, his is unable to work and

relies on disability benefits. A doctor working for the Social Security Administration described chemical levels in Danos’ blood as “grossly abnormal” and a contributing factor to his medical impairment.

Fishing declines, impacts nationwide
The same chemicals that attacked Danos’ system have taken a devastating toll on the Gulf ecosystem. In May 2013, a former owner of a seafood restaurant in southeast Louisiana contacted GAP. She said she began finding oil and deformities in the seafood she served. Concerned that their customers would get sick, she and her business partner decided to close the restaurant. “My dream was to oversee the restaurant and now I can’t,” said the woman, who requested that her name be withheld. “This is usually the time of the year when crabs come out and the catch is so plentiful. However, there are virtually no crabs this year … Each year since the spill, the crab catch has declined and 2013 is the worst yet.”

Recently BP’s Gulf Coast Claims Fund denied her economic loss claim—alleging she had filled out the wrong paperwork. Now she, like thousands connected to the seafood industry throughout the Gulf, is concerned about what the future holds.

Three years after the spill, conditions are getting worse. According to a survey conducted by LEAN, fisher families reported losses ranging from $80,000 to $530,000 as a result of the BP spill, and fishermen surveyed estimate a 60 to 70 percent loss in the quantity of seafood harvested in the next 10 years.

Corexit caused the dispersed oil to enter the water column or settle on the seafloor, where crustaceans and other “bottom feeders” live, possibly explaining the dramatic drop in shrimp, oysters, and crabs in some regions.

Another factor is the underwater plumes caused by Corexit. A University of South Florida study released in April 2013 revealed that the plumes resulted in a “massive die-off” of tiny foraminifera, microscopic life that form the basis of the marine food chain.

Similarly, a recent study in the scientific journal Gulf and Caribbean Research, confirmed significant damage to offshore coral. The destructive impact of the spill was confirmed by divers who filmed a “Dead Sea” in Florida waters once teaming with fish.

The consequences to the Gulf marine life are widespread. Over 70 percent of the nation’s shrimp catch, and 60 percent of its oysters are from the Gulf.

Will EPA make it right?
Environmental groups including LEAN and the Sierra Club, and the Louisiana Shrimp Association, filed a lawsuit against the EPA under the Clean Water Act for its use of Corexit, seeking more robust standards for future dispersant use.

In May, U.S. District Judge John Bates tossed out the lawsuit. The EPA argued that because it issued its process for dispersant approval under the National Contingency Plan (the government’s blueprint for oil-spill response) almost 30 years ago, the plaintiffs’ claims were untimely. Bates agreed. He ruled that the time to challenge the plan the EPA issued in 1984 has long since passed.

The EPA recognizes, however, that dispersant regulations need a makeover. This summer it is scheduled to issue a proposed rule that would revise dispersant approval requirements.

Environmental advocacy groups and activists have directed their efforts at the EPA. Already thousands of individuals are pressuring the agency through a citizens’ petition to ban toxic dispersants and employ safer oil cleanup techniques.

Absent these citizens’ campaigns, the Gulf spill plays out like a broken record, as the government continues endorsing Corexit and BP continues promoting its use. And as deepwater drilling expands, the public remains more susceptible to chemical dispersants and dangerously unaware of their costs.

At BP’s 2013 Annual General Meeting, CEO Bob Dudley remarked: “Everything to a degree has toxicity and the toxicity of Corexit is about the same as dish-soap, which is effectively what it is and how it works … Corexit is a U.S. government recommended product and it is still used.”

At his private practice in Raceland, Louisiana, Robichaux continues to treat patients daily. “Until people are educated about the symptoms associated with exposure to toxic waste from the spill, we cannot assume they will make the connection.” 


Shanna Devine is an investigator at the Government Accountability Project. She worked on the GAP report, “Deadly Dispersants in the Gulf.” 

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