Oil spill’s health effects raise concern, but are unproven, commissioner says


Coastal residents finally found a receptive audience to their complaints about health problems they allegedly suffered from exposure to dispersants and toxins while helping clean up oil from the BP spill in the Gulf of Mexico.

President Barack Obama’s National Oil Spill Commission mentioned the issue in the 400-page final report it released this week, and on Wednesday commission members listened compassionately to the tearful entreaties of those who say their suffering has been unfairly dismissed.

But in the end, the commissioners had to admit that their recommendation that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency establish stricter monitoring of the health effects of major spills is unlikely to help those who say their work in oiled waters and marshes has raised the level of carcinogenic benzene in their bodies and caused the onset of respiratory and intestinal illnesses.

“I’m sick today and nobody wants to take care of me,” said James “Catfish” Miller, a fisherman from Biloxi, Miss., who worked for 60 days in BP’s vessel of opportunity program, using his boat to help clean the Gulf.

Speaking to two of the seven Oil Spill Commission members at a final public hearing in downtown New Orleans, Miller said he was near dispersants sprayed to break up the oil, breathed in the crude’s benzene component and has been in and out of the hospital ever since. He bristled at the commission’s conclusion that BP’s use of dispersants was a “trade-off” between the possible exposure to chemical toxins and the certain need to prevent oil from coming ashore and doing greater ecological damage.

“You people need to understand: My life’s not a trade-off,” Miller said angrily.

Kindra Arnesen, the wife and daughter of commercial fishers in Venice, was more diplomatic. An outspoken coastal-community representative since BP let her observe some internal spill-response meetings, Arnesen said the health issue is getting short shrift. But she praised the commission for recognizing its significance.

“I have to say, I expected the worst thing to come out of you guys; I really did,” she said to Donald Boesch and Frances Beinecke, the two members of the commission who weren’t snowed in on the East Coast and thus managed made it to New Orleans to face the public. “I am totally impressed.”

While the commission is officially dissolving, its members say they will continue to be visible, lobbying for the report’s recommendations to be implemented by Congress and, where possible, by the president.

Beinecke said health concerns are “clearly a dominant issue down here,” and she promised to share the “really, really powerful” stories of despair with Obama and his Cabinet. But Boesch warned that the commission was limited in its assessment of the spill’s health impacts by a lack of empirical evidence.

“We were charged with being evidence-driven, and the fact is we’ve asked for and sought out evidence that the oil spill is the proximate cause of these health problems, and we just haven’t found it,” he said.

The commission’s final report tries to focus attention on the health issue, noting that the government’s protocols for responding to terrorist attacks include a structure for a public health response. But it could be difficult to establish a framework for addressing what the commission could only establish as a perception – and not proof – of a direct correlation between the spill and health problems.

“Whether allegations that the spill created health problems for responders and Gulf Coast residents are warranted does not change the perception among some that government has not been responsive to health concerns,” the report says.

“The EPA has to do health monitoring from the get-go,” Beinecke said. “We have to have baseline data and across-the-board protocols in place. But unfortunately, that doesn’t help the people with health issues that they’re experiencing now.”

People in Miller’s situation can’t file worker’s compensation claims for illnesses they believe were caused by oil or dispersant exposure. They are left instead to file personal-injury claims with the Gulf Coast Claims Facility, the organization run by claims czar Kenneth Feinberg using a $20 billion fund set aside by BP. So far, Feinberg’s organization has paid 59 people about $1,800 per claim for personal injury or death due to the rig explosion or spill.

Feinberg said he’s received 400 personal-injury claims and paid those that could “demonstrate that the injury was caused by the spill.” He said he expects “to pay many more (than 59) if documented.”

Some of those at Wednesday’s meeting though the commission should have said more about Feinberg’s overall performance. The commission’s final report says it’s difficult to establish the proportion of a claimant’s losses that were caused by the spill. The report says the uncertainty “has already stymied the Gulf Coast Claims Facility in its processing of claims” and chides Feinberg for “the absence of clear and fair procedures for systematically evaluating such claims.”

Feinberg acknowledged his operation hasn’t “been as transparent as we should have been on the eligibility requirements and methodology and we are using.” He then promised to post eligibility requirements and methodologies on his website, www.gulfcoastclaimsfacility.com, “in the coming weeks.”

Tom Costanza from Catholic Charities said that desperate fishers and others who’ve filed damage claims deserve to have an independent body assess the payment process as it continues, and he said he had hoped the commission would fill that role. Instead, the commission’s report calls for an audit of the claims process in 2013.

Unable to fly from Washington to New Orleans in time for the public meeting, commission co-chairman William Reilly discussed the report with Gov. Bobby Jindal in a telephone call Wednesday morning. Jindal expressed his support for much of the report, particularly its recommendation that 80 percent of pollution fines collected by the government be dedicated to coastal restoration, and that a scientific assessment of damage from the spill and historic ecological losses be used to determine how that money is distributed.

But Garrett Graves, Jindal’s coastal adviser, said Jindal expressed concern about some of the commission’s conclusions. The governor cheered the commission’s recommendation of a safety institute run by the industry itself. But he wants to see it also serve to police drilling activities in place of a larger federal regulatory agency, something the commissioners are adamantly against.

Graves also said Jindal is concerned about the way the commission presents its conclusion that the Deepwater Horizon explosion was indicative of systemic failures across the whole oil and gas industry. Graves said Jindal wants to make sure that doesn’t hold up drilling activity in the Gulf and isn’t taken as a suggestion that BP is less liable for the spill. Reilly said he assured Jindal that wasn’t the commission’s intention.

David Hammer can be reached at dhammer@timespicayune.com or 504.826.3322.

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Stuart H. Smith is an attorney based in New Orleans fighting major oil companies and other polluters.
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