Thousands of Sick BP Cleanup Workers, Inadequate Federal Protections and an Absence of Fair Compensation


Thousands of BP cleanup workers and volunteers have fallen ill since spending months immersed in waters fouled by oil and toxic dispersants. Without even the most basic safety gear – like gloves, boots, body suits or respirators – workers were directly exposed to a crush of toxins, including the known human carcinogen, benzene.

Symptoms range from severe headaches and shortness of breath to nausea and vomiting. Long term effects include neurological damage, chronic respiratory problems and cancer. At the height of the spill response last summer, so many cleanup workers were getting sick that concerned public officials, including U.S. Rep. Charlie Melancon of Louisiana, called on the federal government to open mobile health clinics to provide treatment. Those urgent requests went unanswered. Today, many of the workers are too sick to provide for their families.

This didn’t have to happen.

We find ourselves in this increasingly dire situation in large part because the federal government didn’t protect the tens of thousands of workers and volunteers who participated in last year’s massive spill response. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) failed to enforce laws requiring BP to provide adequate protective equipment for the cleanup crews. Many illnesses could have been avoided had this relatively simple protective measure taken place.

The situation was further exacerbated because many of the sick workers languished without receiving treatment for their ailments. The mobile clinics Rep. Melancon and others so urgently requested never materialized. Workers were left on their own to seek care, at their own expense. Sadly, many suffered in silence, fearing they would lose their cleanup jobs if they spoke out or sought medical attention. Remember, as BP officials ramped up response efforts last summer they were requiring local workers to sign waivers releasing the company from any liability in the cleanup efforts. That is, until a U.S. District Court judge ordered them to cease and desist.

We can point fingers – there’s certainly plenty of blame to go around – but that won’t make sick workers whole again. One way we can, and should, help those who cleaned our waters and beaches is through financial support from the Gulf Coast Claims Facility (GCCF), the administrative body for BP’s $20 billion victim compensation fund.

Who could be more deserving of fair and just compensation than workers made sick from cleaning up the 200-million-gallon mess BP made?

To date, sick cleanup workers have received zero compensation for their medical bills and spill-related health problems. Based on an unprecedented burden of proof, the GCCF hasn’t paid a single illness claim tied to the Gulf cleanup. That needs to change. We urge Mr. Feinberg, the fund’s chief administrator, to immediately reconsider his position on this matter.

We can look back at Mr. Feinberg’s past work with other compensation funds to make our case. According to a new report from the New Orleans-based Advocates for Environmental Human Rights (AEHR), a nonprofit public interest law firm (see link to full report below):

Feinberg’s requirement of medical proof of causation for BP illness claims is a break from his past practices in processing claims and pay-outs in the 9/11 Victims Compensation Fund and the Agent Orange Settlement Fund. As the administrator of those funds, Feinberg did not require medical proof that a claimant’s illness or disability was caused by being exposed to toxic air pollution resulting from the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks or the toxic chemicals in Agent Orange sprayed during the Vietnam War. These disaster fund programs paid claimants based on a showing that they were in the vicinity where harmful chemicals were present and had a medically diagnosed illness or disability.

The rationale for not requiring medical proof of causation in the Agent Orange Settlement Fund, which was replicated in the 9/11 Victims Compensation Fund, is “the inconclusive state of the scientific evidence” to demonstrate that a specific toxic exposure caused a specific physical harm.

As an attorney who has successfully tried a variety of personal injury cases and wrongful death suits tied to oil pollution, I can tell you that “medical proof of causation” is a difficult standard to meet. And the fact that it’s unprecedented within the context of Mr. Feinberg’s past work smacks of unequal treatment. It’s an insult to anybody who became ill during cleanup operations – and particularly to those who are still suffering.

Consider this from Nalini Sathiakumar, an occupational epidemiologist and pediatrician from the University of Alabama, when making a case for paying BP illness claims:

Studies [of spills] have shown us consistent evidence for oracular, neurological and dermal exposure as a result of exposure to volatile organic compounds. Short-term lung, kidney and liver functions could be affected.

And remember, it’s not just oil that workers were exposed to. Don’t forget the 2 million gallons of the toxic dispersant Corexit – a substance that has been banned in other countries. According to the Centers For Disease Control and Prevention (CDCP), long-term exposure to dispersants can cause damage to blood, kidneys and livers.

There’s more support for paying cleanup workers in a June 25, 2010 article from TIME magazine:

…the mix of oil and chemical dispersants washing up on the Gulf shoreline could be immediately dangerous, especially for the tens of thousands of workers and volunteers involved in the cleanup. Fumes in heavily oiled areas may overwhelm spill responders – there is widespread concern that some workers are not being given sufficient safety equipment, including respirators – and volunteers, who may not have as much training or experience as hired workers, could be in the greatest danger.

So far, more than 400 oil-exposure complaints have been logged by poison-control centers and 100 oil-spill-related illnesses have been reported, mostly by cleanup workers, but these maladies may be just the tip of the iceberg.

The AEHR report criticizes Mr. Feinberg for what appear to be inconsistencies:

By creating a significantly higher burden of proof standard for illness claims by people exposed to toxic chemicals during their cleanup of BP’s oil disaster, Feinberg effectively denies all damage claims for illnesses associated with exposure to the toxic BP crude oil and/or toxic chemical dispersants that were applied to the oil spill. Feinberg’s unprecedented standard implies that the sacrifices that cleanup workers and volunteers have made to protect the coastal communities, livelihoods, culture, marine species, and wildlife of the Gulf Region from the largest environmental disaster in the history of the United States are of lesser importance. It also implies that people living in or visiting the Gulf Coast who were exposed to BP’s oil and/or chemical dispersants do not deserve the same level of protection afforded to the residents and visitors in the vicinity of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, who received financial compensation for toxic exposure-related illness without medical proof of causation.

Feinberg’s unreasonable requirement of medical proof of causation for GCCF claimants effectively denies them compensation for their illnesses and undermines their human right to health.

The AEHR goes on to remind us of how things should be:

It should be sufficient evidence for GCCF claimants to show that they were in the vicinity of BP’s toxic crude oil and/or chemical dispersants and have a medically diagnosed illness or disability. People of the Gulf Region deserve the same treatment as people who received compensation for their toxic exposure-related illnesses from the Agent Orange Settlement Fund and the 9/11 Victims Compensation Fund. Anything less denies their human right to health.

Well put. We can only hope and pray that Mr. Feinberg has a change of mind – and heart.

Here’s the full report from Advocates for Environmental Human Rights (AEHR): FeinbergBreaksWithPastPracticesInRejectingBPIllnessClaims

Read the TIME article on health effects here:,8599,1999479,00.html

© Smith Stag, LLC 2011 – All Rights Reserved


  • I suggest we force Fienberg to assist in the clean up with the same protections afforded the workers and if he refuses it will show without a doubt a fear in being exposed to VOCs. Benzene has no safe allowable levels of contact, none! It can and will kill you,it leaves massive lesions on the brain as well. On second thought maybe Feinberg had some contact with VOCs since his brain seems to be functioning at sub par levels already.

  • Even with doctors notes saying he believes my illness is from the BP oilspill clean up…my attorney says he can’t prove causation

  • i now have seizures, since i worked on the beach operating a dozer. i cannot work due to seizures. and i am not approved by our govt. to get social security, since 2011? thank goodness my boys mom died shortly after my start of seizures or we could not afford living.

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