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.