By Elizabeth Grossman

“I’ve never seen anything like it,” says David Willman, who has nearly 15 years’ experience captaining supply boats that support oil rigs and drilling platforms in the Gulf of Mexico. “We’re seeing pods of whales and dolphins out in the oil and lots of dead things,” he tells me. “Things I’ve never seen before coming up from the deep that look like sea cucumbers floating dead. Man o’ wars floating dead with shriveled tentacles.” Willman is captain of the Noonie G., an 111-foot supply boat owned by Guilbeau Marine, a company based in Cut Off, LA. He’s been working out of Venice, Louisiana for about ten years ferrying fuel, water, and other supplies to offshore oil operations.

He’s not the only one seeing oiled and dead sea life: A research team from Texas A&M University out on the Gulf in June also reported what looked to be hundreds of dead sea cucumbers but were actually invertebrates in the tunicate family that are important to the marine food web. Other research teams have seen dead man o’ war jellyfish as well.

“We had just finished working for Apache [an oil company working in the Gulf] when the Deepwater Horizon sank and my company got a call from AMPOL [American Pollution Control Corporation],” Willman tells me. “A skimming unit and oil recovery pump was put on our boat,” he explains. Since late April, he and his wife, who works as his deckhand, along with a rotating crew of four to five, have been working out within 5 miles of the Deepwater Horizon site. Typically they’re out on the water for two to three weeks at a time, then off for a week.

(AMPOL, an environmental services company based in Iberia, LA has apparently been engaged by the Marine Spill Response Corporation (MSRC). MSRC is a non-profit company formed after the Exxon Valdez oil spill to provide “oil spill response services,” among them aircraft to spray dispersant, skimmers, boom, barges, and communications equipment. MSRC is funded by the Marine Preservation Association and its member companies, of which BP is one.)

When I speak to Willman the boat is docked for repairs. Tropical Storm Alex has just blown through and the water is still too rough for skimming.

What skimmers do
“We’re out there with a 100-barrel tank on the back of our boat,” Willman explains. A pump on a boom — or floating arm, as he describes it — pumps oil and water into the tank. This mixture is allowed to settle, the water pumped off, and the process repeated until the tank holds nothing but oil. The full tank is then taken to a barge and the whole process begins again.

Part of the skimmer’s job is locating oil to remove. On days when they can’t find enough concentrated oil to pump, says Willman, “We end up driving through dispersed oil with our propellers and know we’re going to sink it.” He explains how hard the diffuse oil is to avoid and how this only adds to the challenge of containing the oil. “We haven’t made a dent at best,” he says.

“Why are we using all these little boats?” he wonders, instead of fewer larger capacity vessels.

Willman describes how back in May when BP tried to plug up the well with drilling mud (a procedure dubbed “top kill”) the water where they were working was covered “with an acre of this oil based mud …It almost broke the skimming unit. We couldn’t scrub it off and we couldn’t get it off with degreaser.”

He also tells me his experience with the decontamination process when returning to port. Essentially, he says, it’s been a hosing down by series of small boats. During one step, “A boat named the Jan F. comes alongside with a firehose and sprays down the side of our boat. That’s it. Nothing else, no degreaser.” There’s also a visual inspection, but oil on the boat’s hull is just being “knocked off into the water,” says Willman. He worries that this only adds to the existing contamination problems at the mouth of the Mississippi. Two days after I speak to Willman an oil sheen and tarballs from the Deepwater Horizon are spotted in Lake Ponchartrain.

Coast Guard Lieutenant Rob Schmidt explains to me that there’s “double booming” – hard and absorbent boom at the secondary decontamination sites and that either Coast Guard pollution officers or decontamination team leaders are on site to verify the cleaning. “Believe me, we hear from people if there are boats in marinas that are not cleaned,” he says.

Worries about health
Willman says he typically works with a steady crew. Now, he says, he’s been sent crews who’ve had only three days training and have never run a skimming unit before. “I’ve been in hazardous situations before,” he tells me, but many of the new crews have no such experience and very little overall experience.

“They’re flying dispersant over us. They’re lighting fires sometimes starting at 6:30 in the morning,” he tells me. “I’ve seen as many as 20 fires a day,” he says of the controlled burning of surface oil. “There’s smoke in the air. There’s oil, there’s benzene, there’s dispersant … When the burns start there are clouds of smoke and a trail of smoke all the way to the horizon.”

In the heat and sun out on the water, he says, you can almost see the “sheen evaporate off the top of the Gulf of Mexico.”

“And I feel really funky when we are out there,” he tells me. “When I wake up out there, my heart starts fluttering. It’s like you smoked a pack of cigarettes then held your breath,” says Willman, who says he hasn’t smoked in 9 months. “I get an immediate headache when I come in contact with crude oil,” he says. “And my skin itches like it’s cracking.” His wife, Misty, says she’s experienced what she calls “heart flutters,” what she describes as feeling like unexpected rushes of adrenalin. “Everyone out there is coughing,” says Willman. “People are spitting stuff up in the morning and you can feel your blood pressure.”

“I’m 35 years old. I’m a healthy guy. But I don’t feel myself. I’m light-headed and get dizzy. I’m getting headaches and my eyes burn. I get mood swings and I can’t stop scratching,” says Willman. “I don’t know now much longer this can go on before it has a detrimental effect.”

A number of these symptoms – headaches, dizziness, skin itching – are consistent with oil vapor and solvent exposure, explains Dr. Rose Goldman, associate professor of environmental health at the Harvard School of Public Health. “It’s a complex system,” she says of potential exposure out on the oiled waters of the Gulf. There are volatile organic compounds coming off the oil. There may be an oil and water mist mixture. If there’s burning nearby there will be smoke and particulates, and there’s heat. “I can’t say which symptoms are associated with which exposure,” she explains, “but careful monitoring should be done so we can find out how best to protect these workers.”

I ask Willman about pay and benefits. “We’re all on a day rate,” Willman tells me. “Twenty-four hour days. On call 24 hours but work 12, off 12.” There’s no hazard pay, he says, and no additional per diem. “Fifty percent of deckhands don’t have health insurance,” Willman tells me. “You pay out of pocket or with a credit card and get reimbursed under workers comp… If you get hurt you hope the company rep. will meet you at the hospital.”

“There are paramedics on the Seacor Lee – the lead vessel – where there are also MSRC and BP reps,” he explains. The Seacor Lee is also where he’s been told Material Safety Data Sheets (MSDSs) are kept. “When you ask for an MSDS, you have to check with a supervisor,” he tells me.

(Seacor Marine provides logistical and equipment support to offshore drilling operations around the world. An initial call to MSRC for details on the company’s role in the Deepwater Horizon response was answered by a woman who said someone – she wasn’t allowed to say who – would return my call. A day later, a Coast Guard officer called to confirm my inquiry to MSRC. She said she was calling from the Houma, LA Joint Information Center but when I called her number, I reached the BP headquarters in Houma. Eventually, I reached MSRC spokesperson Judith Roos who explained via email that “MSRC personnel supervise MSRC skimming operations on MSRC assets.” MSRC response vessels have medics on board. MSRC is working directly for BP and also through contractors who are providing various response services, including skimming.)

“I don’t want to be out there in this crap much longer,” says Willman. “I want to know the long term effects of this stuff,” he tells me.

“Can we get some monitoring?” Misty asks.

“We’ve already screwed up our ecology. We’ve already killed a generation of fish,” says Willman. “My children’s children will be seeing this.”

Elizabeth Grossman is the author of Chasing Molecules: Poisonous Products, Human Health, and the Promise of Green Chemistry, High Tech Trash: Digital Devices, Hidden Toxics, and Human Health, and other books. Her work has appeared in a variety of publications including Scientific American, Salon, The Washington Post, The Nation, Mother Jones, Grist, and the Huffington Post. Chasing Molecules was chosen by Booklist as one of the Top 10 Science & Technology Books of 2009 and won a 2010 Gold Nautilus Award for investigative journalism.

Comments

  1. #1 Rose Colored Glasses
    July 8, 2010

    Hear that deafening silence? That’s OSHA keeping a low profile and hoping nobody notices.

  2. #2 Ken
    July 8, 2010

    Fascinating insight into what is going on.

    While it’s painfully obvious (in so many respects) that there was no real plan for something like this at any level, I wonder if anyone in government or industry is learning anything. I wonder if there will be meaningful plans made for oil spills like this in the future, or if the creative writers will simply rephrase the old crap yet one more time and file it back on the shelves.

    I know almost nothing about the public health system and the role it could play before future events like this occur again.

  3. #3 Robert Weinberg
    July 8, 2010

    There is a solution to effective oil spill remediation.
    Deploy more skimming and separating capacity than the rate of oil flow from the spill. There is only one technology in the world that can accomplish this efficiently.
    Please see http://www.EVTN.com
    EVTN is currently developing its own ultra high capacity small skimmer boats incorporating its patented Voraxial technology. These boats are capable of fast emergency response, high maneuverability, shallow water operations, and low energy requirement. Unlike most conventional skimmers, these boats store nothing on board. Because of their ultra high capacity separation ability, they return clean water to the ocean and extract oil for storage in towed, inflatable bladder tanks, which can be dropped off for recovery and transport. These boats should be equipped with GPS and satellite transponders to enable command and control by the Navy, which is the only organization with the capacity for a massive seaborne operation now approaching 9,000 vessels. These boats would also carry respirators and have environmentally conditioned cabins. Our government made a huge mistake placing BP in charge of surface cleanup. First, this is not BP’s area of expertise. They are an oil Company. Second, their motivation is clearly different from that of the appropriate US government entities that are
    supposed to represent the best interests of the American people.

  4. #4 Eileen Senn
    July 9, 2010

    Thank you for your great reporting, Lizzie. We need more of these types of stories to show us how workers are potentially exposed to chemicals during the cleanup. Can you comment on whether or not Captain Dave and his crew have access to respirators and how they feel about wearing them? Do they get advance warning of dispersant applications and controlled burns so they can maneuver to avoid them?

  5. #5 Elizabeth Grossman
    July 9, 2010

    Eileen – I simply forgot to ask about respirators. And in case it’s helpful to you and other readers, I think it’s probably clear but this story reflects one person’s experience. I tried to corroborate as much of what I was told as possible and it seems to me that what Dave Willman told me coincides with much of what we’ve been hearing from others involved in the response work. Comments about crew and health are obviously subjective but again they coincide with what’s been expressed elsewhere. I’ve since gotten even more details of the vessel decontamination process and it may appear more casual than it actually is – hard to know without experiencing it first hand. It also sounds as if the Coast Guard is using some cleaning methods that avoid use of hazardous chemical degreasing products.

  6. #6 Lawrence Baker
    July 9, 2010

    Elizabeth, that was a great piece of reporting and you have a nice crowd of comments.

    Yes, the tentacles of multinational corporate corruption reach Congress and all Federal and State Public Agencies; OSHA (Science) and EPA is no different.

    I hope you all realize this oil catastrophe is economic and ecological genocide of the American People.

    From the beginning, the government drones, main stream media, and BP have lied, keep secrets, employed goon squad “security” forces and obstructed positive action to stop the oil flow and to contain and clean up of oil before it reached shore 48 miles away.

    This insanity unfolding before us is not by accident, the US had their chance to contain the oil from the beginning by employing the modern oil recovery vessels of the Dutch and other foreign countries that have a deep water oil recovery plan and modern equipment to do the job. The oil would have not reached shore.

    BP and the US plan from the beginning were to use illegal in-house dispersants. In fact, Marine Spill Response Corporation is an inside operation to keep expenditures in-house. BP could care less about the oil coming ashore; they think they are money ahead by spending money on themselves! That is why there is no foreign fleet of modern oil spill vessels working!
    Here are some useful links.

    http://wireofinformation.wordpress.com/2010/07/09/gulf-oil-spill-toxic-chemicals-in-the-air-people-and-animals-will-suffer-from-respiratory-disease/

    http://physicsfrontline.aps.org/2010/07/01/stop-the-oil-spill-with-heavy-streamlined-objects/

    http://www.globalresearch.ca/index.php?context=va&aid=19951

    http://vodpod.com/watch/3866508-youtube-urgent-gulf-oil-spill-causing-toxic-rain-killing-crops

    http://www.metacafe.com/watch/4805399/oil_rain_in_louisiana_bp_oil_leak_rain/

    .

  7. #7 Ace
    July 10, 2010

    First thing first, its your company that supplies your vessel with respirators and air monitoring devices. You should be spending time implementing the safty program to cover you and your crew instead of writing alot of BS. The MSDS you spoke of is available to all vessels at any given time, just ask. Maybe just maybe you didn’t have time to ask with all of the updates you’ve been doing on here. Get your facts straight before running off at the mouth.

  8. #8 morris
    July 10, 2010

    It seems the corexit is being used only to camoflage the disaster.

    A disaster that was possibly made deliberately by man, to bring BP to its knees, and all the efforts for secrecy and refusing foreign assistance, and the corexit add suspicion.

    BP’s secret 3rd Oil Spill The Big Red One – Video
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FJEpxMkIn2c

  9. #9 Margaret Hursh
    July 10, 2010

    The link I have chosen are ones I write: “What Denny Kelso said in 1989 about use of dispersants” When I realized in 2001 that someone in my family was health damaged in 1989 by working on the beach cleanup with Inipol / only 10% 2-butoxyethanol, I went on a quest to learn what this chemical was. (Corexit used in gulf is 30% – 60% stong. STOP using Corexit!) I recognize the signs, and you are describing them. It is the most commonly used glycol ether, but that doesn’t make it safe. It causes a body to go autoimmune and back in those days, Exxon c/o VECO required a check for blood in urine (the autoimmune hemolytic anemia this glycol ether causes) Eventually when more symptoms pile on you get the Chronic Fatigue Immune Dysfunction Syndrome or one of the ‘military syndromes’ Biggest misconception in health today is that flu symptoms are caused by a virus. NO! They are caused from glycol ether poisoning. I think gamma globulin would help sick workers; and new EPA policies would help our Nation.

  10. #10 Brad
    July 11, 2010

    The government is doing nothing for a reason! They want people dead. there is no other conclusion. They easily could have acted far far more proactively in this situation. I doesn’t make sense to the rational mind, but this is a genocide event. They want lots of people gone. They are acting to inflict maximum harm…open your eyes and get the hell out of there!!!

  11. #11 Karen Lee
    July 12, 2010

    this is the most insightful information I have found…I am very sad at this turn of events…I cant make myself believe that this is in anyway any kind of a plot…it just shows man arrogance is his own undoing. we are trapped in a web of oil…for transportation, for plastic related materials…look around … we are covered up…addiction to oil and to stop would be suicide – economically, however…if this isnt the turning point when we decide that we will pay the price to go quickly into the green technology and give up on all the “high standards” of living. we have become so caught up…simplify simplify… I dont know…but —– the alternative is looking bleak.

  12. #12 reuben vick
    July 12, 2010

    Some people were worried that the oil would return one day… but the concerns were dismissed as.. DEPRESSING

  13. #13 Sivi
    July 14, 2010

    Wow – that was a pretty solid piece of reporting which seems to have attracted a disproportionate number of nuts.

    *ahem* Accidents happen. BP screwed up pretty badly and lied about their capacity to deal with an accident. No need for conspiracies when greed and laziness will suffice.

  14. #14 Liz Borkowski
    July 14, 2010

    Well put, Sivi. I’m a big fan of Hanlon’s Razor: Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity.

  15. #15 titmouse
    July 15, 2010

    I hope people are thinking about the hummingbirds. They need to cross the Gulf come Sept-Oct.

    I don’t want to live in a world without the hummers. :(

  16. #16 David willman
    September 22, 2010

    Hi this is Captain Dave, I would like to personally thank mrs.grossman for having the courage to put this piece out there for everyone to see, and i must say my boss was none to happy about it, after calling me several choice names he actually threatened me over the phone worrying only about his current vessel day rate. So i was encouraged to work else where so that is exactly what i did. now i am faced with something new and different from my oil clean up work and i need some advise, did we as workers in a hazardous envirement have the right to know what we would be exsposed to before we were exsposed to it(corexit 9500, crude oil, oil based mud) just to name a few, i believe we have that right but we werent given that information. WHY NOT? who is going to pay for my medical exspenses? BP?

  17. #17 Barry Beaver
    January 7, 2011

    Brother I did not know it was that bad. Just let me know what I can do and I will be there, you know that.We have been thru things no one said could be done before and gotten them done.Just sound the call and I will be there.

  18. #18 Barry Beaver
    August 19, 2011

    Capt. Dave, Brother I am proud of you for what you have done and are doing now.You have shown me a lot over the years.

  19. #19 Crazzy
    October 26, 2011

    Glad that is all over with now… ( Puts oil ball in bucket)

  20. #20 Patricia Culpepper
    Alabama
    July 22, 2014

    This is so crazy. Oil has always been in the Gulf. The floor of the Gulf leaks oil. On its own, the oil released will sink to the floor of the Gulf and after a while will solidify. When I was a child back in the 1940′s, I was given the privilege of going with my grandfather to the beach to find “oil rocks” (that’s what I called them) on the beach.
    We would keep them until Pa-pere would be ready to make his wooden boats waterproof. The larger boats would be taken to a commercial dry dock for waterproofing, but he liked to do the smaller skiffs himself. AND he would let me help!
    First, the boats would be taken out of the water and turned over so the wood could dry. When the wood was dry, we would dig the old cotton out from between the planks when that was done, the planks would be scraped clean. Then Grandpa would take new cotton off the roll, twist it and shove the cotton between the cleaned planks. When all the planks has been “stuffed,” Grandpa would build a fire, but a bucket on the fire and begin tossing “oil rocks” into the bucket. They would melt returning to a state of thick tar. Next, Grandpa would begin smearing the melted oil over the cotton. My job was to smooth the oil after it was applied. we had to work fast. because if the oil cooled quickly, it would have to be heated again. After all the work was done, Grandpa would turn the boats over and push them into the bayou. Then he would wade out and fill the boats with water, soaking the planks. When the planks swelled, he knew the boat was waterproofed and ready for work.
    The Corexit dispersant mixed with the oil is good for nothing but killing every life thing with which it comes in contact. When this disaster first happened, I went to Grand Isle. I have a house there. I went to the beach. Tar balls were all over the place. It was impossible to avoid stepping on some of them. Thank goodness I had a pair of tennis shoes on, The deadly mixture got all over my shoes. When we got to the camp, I tried to get it off by rubbing the shoes on the grass. Didn’t work. Got some rags and soap and tried to clean the shoes. Didn’t work. After several trials I finally gave up and threw the shoes, rags, paper towels, brushes and other items that were covered with this sticky, toxic mess and throw the whole mess in the garbage can.
    I feel that I will be a long time dead before the Gulf is healthy and productive again.
    Peace.