The forgotten divers of Deepwater Horizon


This past weekend’s Memorial Day ceremonies were a special time for remembering the many men and women who were called to serve and who made the ultimate sacrifice for our country. The troops who have fought for our country are truly special — and yet at the same time they embody something more fundamental about the American character. There is a deep instinct among so many citizens — not just soldiers and sailors but among many civilians as well — to help others, to rush into a dangerous situation rather than run away.

I witnessed that instinct close up in the days and weeks immediately after BP’s Deepwater Horizon oil spill in April 2010. Fisherman, charter boat captains and many other good citizens of the Gulf Coast went into the heart of the spill to help with the cleanup — working to contain the spill, document its impact, or rescue sea turtles or other wildlife that had been stranded. As a lawyer, I went to court with environmental groups who were shocked and disappointed that these workers weren’t provided adequate protective clothing or gear.

But no one exposed themselves to greater risk than a small group of divers who went down into the Gulf at the height of the disaster. These especially brave men and women took samples or performed underwater photography, providing a valuable window for a public that had every right to know the full extent of the damage caused by BP. Many who thought they would be safe if they avoided direct contact with the oil slick didn’t know the extent of the highly toxic dispersant, Corexit, that had been deployed by the oil giant, with the federal government’s OK.

This weekend, there was an excellent story in the Tampa Bay Times that I want to call to your attention, describing what happened to some of the divers of the Deepwater Horizon spill — men like Scott Porter. He’d worked for years as a contractor for oil companies, and he’d developed an interest in the coral that grows around oil rigs. He offered to study the impacts of the spill: 

Federal officials “kept telling us it was safe,” Porter said. So he and the other divers he worked with relied on that advice and kept plunging into the gulf.

At the time, Porter was a fit, healthy guy, just 42, who had performed 6,000 dives. He competed in martial arts tournaments. He didn’t expect to get sick. But soon after swimming through murky water full of oil and chemical dispersants, he said, he began suffering from a variety of ailments — a burning sensation in his chest, migraine headaches, skin rashes, nausea.

Porter says he is still dealing with some of those symptoms today, as are other divers who came into contact with the mixture of oil and chemical dispersants during the 2010 disaster.

“I was disoriented a lot of the time. I was dizzy a lot, and feeling sick,” said Dale Englehardt, another Louisiana diver. “Now the bottoms of my feet have blisters. They pop and go away, but then they come back, and now they’re on my chest and back, too.”

It’s important to note that the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration — NOAA — balked at sending its own divers down, even as it was lax about warning other divers like Porter and Englehardt about the proper precautions. When Porter initially dove down near the oil spill, he was wearing just a wet suit, which provides little if any protection against contamination. When he dove near the BP spill, he encountered a 10-foot cloud of broken up oil particles, the effect of massive amounts of Corexit that was deployed to make the oil disappear. 

The effects that Porter suffers from in the aftermath of his dives — skin rashes, headaches, breathing difficulties — are all too familiar to many of the clean-up workers along the Gulf, but especially to the divers. These selfless servants deserve so much more from the government than what they are getting now. The last paragraph of the Tampa Bay Times article was especially chilling:

The National Institutes of Health has signed up 33,000 people across the Gulf Coast to follow them for 10 years and see if the oil or dispersant made them ill. Porter and his fellow divers have refused to participate because the study is just a study, period. As his fellow diver Steve Kolian put it, “They just want to watch us die.”

To read the entire Tampa Bay Times article, please go to:

© Smith Stag, LLC 2013 – All Rights Reserved

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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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