Merle Savage moved to Anchorage, Alaska in 1988. Three months later, the oil tanker Exxon Valdez crashed onto a reef, spilling nearly 11 million galleons into Prince William sound. The reaction among Alaskans mirrored the feelings of many on the Gulf Coast – people were angry, and people wanted to help. Over 11,000 people signed up to help with onshore and offshore cleanup that summer. And the pay wasn’t bad either: Merle was making nearly $16.50 an hour, working for four months on the oil-slicked beaches and later as a manager on a barge.
The spill stopped after a few days, but the health problems of many cleanup workers have not. Thousands of workers have reported long-term complications such as respiratory illness, cancer, nerve damage, and stomach problems. These people share a couple things in common: they were healthy before, and they worked in Prince William Sound during the summer of 1989.
During the cleanup, workers complained of headaches, nausea, diarrhea, and bronchitis. People got so sick that they began calling the flu-like symptoms “the Valdez Crud.” That summer 1,800 injuries were reported to the state and over 6,000 people visited for the hospital for respiratory problems. “Everybody was throwing up and complaining,” Merle recalls, likening the sleeping bunks to a TB ward. The flu-like symptoms of the Crud allowed Veco, the company supervising the cleanup, to classify the problems as a simple cold, meaning they didn’t have to report them to the state of Alaska. Despite the perpetual line in front of the onboard doctor’s office, “people didn’t want to lose their jobs and be sent home.”
Like other beach workers, Merle skimmed oil off the water, picked up dead wildlife, scrubbed rocks, and used high-pressure hoses to spray oil-coated beaches with solvents. They worked 12 hours days, seven days a week. As their hoses sprayed against the rocks, a thick wall of steam mixed with oil rose, and was difficult to avoid despite the worker’s paper masks. “We were breathing in crude oil,” Merle remembers. “Exxon kept telling us, this isn’t toxic, it’s not going to hurt you. So we believed them.”
The long days spent on remote, oil-covered beaches also meant that basic cleanliness was difficult. “There was no way to wash your hands,” Merle remembers. “They’d give you sandwiches and you’d try to find a way to eat it while being covered in oil.” In addition, many workers fell on the slippery rocks or lurching boats, breaking bones and cutting themselves.
Later, Merle oversaw decontamination efforts on the barges. At night, workers were ferried to barges where they removed their gear, showered, and slept before heading out the next morning. Before entering their cabins, workers went through a decontamination chamber where Merle’s team scrubbed their protective gear clean with solvents. “We were around the crude all day,” she says. “We had paper masks and gloves, but you’re washing it off, it’s evaporating or splashing onto you. It’s a very toxic substance, and there wasn’t a lot of awareness of that.”
At the end of summer, Merle finished her job. Her health problems were just beginning. “After I went home, I had constant problems – bronchitis, sinus infections, stomach problems. I was fainting and throwing up.” She describes herself as energetic and health consciousness, with no issues before the cleanup. For the next eighteen years, Merle describes an endless string of doctors and misdiagnoses, no one linking her problems to the cleanup.
“They thought it was allergies, diet, everything. At one point they found deterioration in my liver, and asked if I was a heavy drinker. Drinker!” she yells, incredulous. “I don’t drink or smoke.” Her health problems grew so serious she was forced to leave Alaska and quit her job as a real estate agent.
Her confusion ended in 2007, when Merle was approached by Dr. Ricki Ott. Dr. Ott worked with many of the cleanup workers and explained what Merle had long suspected: that her exposure to crude oil could be her problem. Crude oil contains a smorgasbord of toxic chemicals, including benzene, toluene and polynuclear aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), a group of over 100 compounds, some of which can cause cancer.
Since 2007, Merle has had better success with natural remedies and detoxes. She’s written a book about her experience, and has been contacted by documentary makers, lawyers and advocates. She’s spoken with hundreds of fellow workers, many of them telling her they had found oil traces in their lungs, blood cells and fatty tissue.
“Children whose parents have died of cancer and organ failure have contacted me,” she says. “They’re looking for answers.” Exxon has since offered confidential settlements to seven workers who filed lawsuits over health problems, while insisting that all case documents remain sealed from the public.
Since the Deepwater Horizon spill, Merle has been contacted by people from all over the country. “Someone from Florida called me last week – their son wanted to work on the cleanup. I told him – it’s intriguing, isn’t it? Fifteen dollars an hour to help the environment. But you pay for it with your life.” “Exxon kept telling us that the oil wasn’t dangerous, that they’d support us.” She laughs. “The oil companies aren’t going to support you.”
Poke about on the BP Oil Response website and you’ll notice a link called “Vessels of Opportunity,” which describes a program that has already trained over 1000 volunteers in off-shore containment activities. Right now, those activities are limited to laying boom and transporting supplies, though it’s not hard to imagine that if the oil ever comes ashore, programs similar to Veco’s will be established.
“There’s no way I’d ever go on another oil spill cleanup,” Merle says. “Not for any amount of money. People need to know there’s a whole community that’s gone through the same thing and paid for it with their lives.”