Exxon Valdez - Legacy of a Spill

May 13, 1999

Legacy of a Spill: Stories | Illustrations | Photos

Still painful
10 years later, front-line spill workers link physical ailments to cleanup work

Daily News reporter

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Garry Stubblefield of Granbury, Texas, speaks in short phrases between gasps for air. His doctors have told him his lungs have been damaged by chemical exposure and he is at risk of developing cancer.

Betty Carey of Ranchester, Wyo., suffers from memory loss. She has had a tumor removed from her neck and several odd lumps removed from her legs.

When Leona McJemsey of Soldotna had her tonsils removed at 54, a biopsy revealed she had cancer. Until she died in 1996, seven years later, she was hypersensitive to fragrances and chemical odors and suffered from hives and dizziness.

Though they never met, all three shared a single place in time: Prince William Sound in the summer of 1989, when they helped mop up Exxon's oil from the beaches. Until then, all three have said, they were healthy.

They were among more than 11,000 workers who flocked to Valdez from all corners of the country to clean up Exxon Valdez oil. They and others came for grimy jobs with long hours, but with overtime they earned as much as $1,750 a week.

That summer, Exxon and its contractors told workers that the weathered crude oil they were mopping up and the chemical cleaners they were handling posed no risk if they avoided skin contact and took appropriate precautions.

"They told us we could eat that stuff on our pancakes," said Ron Smith of Soldotna, who blames his headaches, nausea and memory loss on work he did that summer. He just had a pre-cancerous tumor removed from his lower intestine.

After a decade battling odd illnesses, some spill workers have concluded Exxon's health claims were wrong, and two dozen have filed suit. They think the oil they cleaned up, the oil mist they breathed, and the chemical cleaners they handled made them sick and may be slowly killing them.

They have doctors who have concluded they are right. But Exxon's medical experts disagree.

In the 10 years since the spill, millions of dollars have been spent tagging red salmon, radio collaring seals, and studying mudworms and microscopic copepods to determine if there are lingering effects from crude oil exposure.

But despite warnings by a team of public health experts that summer that workers may be at risk from exposure to toxic or hazardous materials, nobody has studied the effects of the cleanup on workers. Internal company memos and government reports show Exxon rebuffed efforts by the health officials who tried. And to this day, only Exxon has the detailed medical records that could be used for epidemiological studies.

"Frankly, in all the litigation, and through all the controversy after the spill, nobody has ever asked the question: What about human health?" said Dr. John Middaugh, Alaska state epidemiologist.

Dr. Daniel Teitelbaum, a private toxicologist from Denver hired by one of the workers, concurs. "Why didn't somebody look further? Why don't we have better diagnoses?"

The oil company declined repeated Anchorage Daily News requests for interviews about worker health and the two dozen lawsuits workers have filed. In a four-paragraph statement issued by spokesman Tom Cirigliano, Exxon didn't directly address the merits of the lawsuits' claims, but noted that those workers represented only a tiny fraction of the total cleanup work force and that each lawsuit involved unique circumstances.

"There is nothing in these claims to suggest that the cleanup systematically produced any illnesses or injuries," the company said.

Exxon confirmed that seven of the suits have been settled out of court, while eight were dismissed by judges. The settlement agreements are sealed, although a separate court case involving insurance companies reveals Exxon paid one worker $2 million.

Exxon and its main cleanup contractor, Anchorage-based Veco, acknowledged that summer that many workers got sick. But Exxon said then, and in the prepared statement now, that the illnesses were "a flu-like upper respiratory illness" that spread because of crowded living conditions on the barges where workers bunked. The illness became known as the "Valdez Crud" and Exxon said it spread even to lawyers and claims adjusters who had little direct exposure to the cleanup and its materials.

Exxon never revealed, and government officials never discovered, precisely how widespread the problem was. But years later, Exxon's internal medical reports showed up in court records. They revealed that an unspecified number of the 11,000 workers made 5,600 clinic visits for upper respiratory illnesses that summer. The source of the illness was never identified.

Veco attorney Jack Miller said he has seen no evidence to suggest workers were overexposed to hazardous substances during the cleanup.

But some workers are suspicious. In the years since the spill, their lawsuits have raised questions about whether the "Valdez Crud" was the flu or a reaction to toxins. They question the amount of hazardous materials training they got and whether they had enough protection from the oil mist they breathed and the weathered crude and the chemical cleaners they handled.

Preparing workers

For two months, Stubblefield operated a crane perched on a small barge anchored close to oiled beaches. The crane was used to direct a hose that sprayed hot water on the oily beaches to loosen stubborn, weathered crude. The small operator's cab Stubblefield occupied for sometimes 18 hours straight was next to a generator. Twice a day, Stubblefield had to wipe off oily mist from the cab windows.

Stubblefield remembers wheezing and being short of breath right from the start. He would also sometimes get drowsy and his feet would go numb. He became nauseous, but never vomited. At first, he didn't think it was a health problem, just a nuisance.

On the shore, workers like Carey were called ORTs, or oil recovery technicians. Most were paid $16.69 an hour.

Every morning they were ferried from the bunkhouse barges and dropped off on oil-covered beaches. They spent 12 to 16 hours a day bagging oiled sea kelp and dead animals or laying out boom and absorbent pads to corral oil. Sometimes they scrubbed a rock at a time, only to go back to the same rock when more oil rolled in on a wave. The training program adopted for the spill didn't call for beach workers to use respirators, but all workers were cautioned not to let the oil touch their skin.

When they returned to the bunk barges at the end of the day, the hundreds of workers living there shed their yellow rain slickers and rubber boots and gloves in a detoxification area. Workers like McJemsey spent the evening washing gear with a chemical solvent for the next day.

Cleanup work was under way in late April when the Alaska Department of Labor invited the government's National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health and the Laborers International Union to observe conditions.

The union team, with funding from the government's National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, criticized the operation and expressed concerns about workers inhaling, ingesting or touching crude oil and inadequate training. Calling the crude "toxic and hazardous," the group raised the possibility that workers were at risk for skin and other disorders, including cancer.

The Laborers team proposed that workers be tracked for chemical exposure. Led by Eula Bingham, assistant Labor secretary for occupational safety and health in the Carter administration and a professor at the University of Cincinnati's College of Medicine, the team wrote a plan for the study.

Bingham's group visited the Sound once, but found it difficult to conduct an independent evaluation. Getting to the remote worksites required working through Exxon, which controlled logistics, and Exxon wasn't cooperating, she said.

"I must say, we got the runaround. I am sure (Exxon) didn't want me around," Bingham said in a telephone interview. "It has always troubled me over the years."

The U.S. Public Health Service, which visited the Sound about the same time, issued a report that disagreed with the Laborers and said toxic exposure threats weren't nearly as high as the union suggested.

Generally, the most toxic elements of crude oil are benzene, toluene and polynuclear aromatic hydrocarbons, or PAHs, a group of over 100 compounds, some of which can cause cancer. Benzene and toluene evaporate quickly, and posed the greatest danger up to 72 hours after the spill, long before the massive cleanup got started.

That left the question whether the remaining PAHs in the crude oil and the cleaners and solvents - like De-Solv-It, Corexit and Inipol - presented any danger to workers, particularly in combination, and if the yellow slickers and rubber gloves and boots the workers used offered enough protection.

After much debate among government and Exxon officials, and at the labor union's urging, the state Department of Labor determined the cleanup was a hazardous waste operation. Bingham's group argued that OSHA standards required that workers get 24 to 40 hours of training.

Carl Reller, an environmental consultant now living in New Zealand who was then Veco's manager of environmental affairs, said in an interview that he was at the meeting where state officials asked Exxon how it would comply. Exxon came back with a proposal for four hours of training for each worker, Reller said. The state accepted that.

"The argument against the 40-hour standard was that the oil had lost most of its toxicity in the first several days following the spill," according to the final report written in 1992 by the Coast Guard's Federal On Scene Coordinator's office.

Only a portion of the abbreviated four-hour course was devoted to handling crude and chemicals. It also included bear-country safety and hypothermia prevention. Three NIOSH investigators later sat through the training classes and deemed them "adequate."

Throughout the summer, NIOSH and an Exxon contractor conducted tests to check levels of worker exposure to toxic substances.

NIOSH officials made three trips to Alaska that year and took air samples. They detected benzene in 12 of 33 samples, but the levels were too low to cause alarm, according to the agency's report. The agency also tested for nitrogen dioxide, a byproduct of diesel fuel combustion, and found elevated levels. The agency concluded that some workers probably were exposed to excessive diesel fumes, which contain toxic chemicals and carcinogens.

Exxon hired Med-Tox Associates Inc. of Anaheim, Calif., for its own sampling. The bulk of their data was not released to the public, though some information trickled out four years later in the lawsuits. Those court records show the company conducted 1,600 tests for light hydrocarbons like benzene, but only 30 for the more longer-lasting PAHs and another 114 for oil mist.

The coughing

The massive assault against spilled oil barely had begun when workers complained of illness. They had flu-like symptoms: coughing, headaches, dizziness and runny noses.

"At night, in the bunks, it was like a TB ward," said Carey, who had only been on the job a couple days when she started having headaches and coughs. "Everyone was coughing."

"My lungs were really irritated," she said. "Then towards the end of it, I had like a joint pain in my hip." Within two weeks, Carey was airlifted out, her work stint over.

Exxon's chief of medicine that summer, Dr. Kenneth Gould, said in a speech that fall to oil industry officials that the illnesses didn't respond to antibiotics. "No single set of antibiotics seemed efficacious," he said.

State and federal health officials heard about the sickness and discussed looking into it. In its final report in 1991, NIOSH officials wrote that state health workers planned to look closer but they had the same problems as other health experts: They couldn't get Exxon to release its clinical data, and Exxon controlled access to workers at remote locations.

Out on the work barge that summer, crane operator Stubblefield climbed down from his cab and sought medical treatment two or three times a week for breathing difficulties. He was given vitamin C and cough medicine. He said he asked if the diesel fumes could be redirected, and he complained about the air quality, but nothing changed.

"They didn't run one dang-blame air-quality test," he said. "They were running air monitoring on some barges, but not mine. If there is a reason for running it on some, why not all of them?"

After two months, he left to get medical help in Anchorage.

"I came off the spill because I couldn't breathe or talk," Stubblefield said. "A month later, I still couldn't talk. My wife had to walk around and talk for me because my throat was completely shut down. I knew I needed help." He spent the next five years seeing doctor after doctor in Anchorage, Seattle and Denver.

McJemsey, who worked in the detoxification area, had a sore throat most of the summer, according to her son, Roger McJemsey. During brief breaks away from the cleanup work, her condition improved, he said. But as soon as she returned to work, the problems started anew. By the time she left for home at the end of the summer, she barely could talk, he said.

Middaugh, the state epidemiologist, said it would have been easy to conduct sampling to isolate a possible viral cause for the "Valdez Crud." But the state wasn't asked to help.

And if it was the flu, results from the state's viral laboratory in Fairbanks show it didn't spread out of the Sound. The laboratory received samples from only 17 people in the Valdez area that summer and all returned different results. No unique influenza viruses were identified anywhere else in the state during that period of time either, according to Don Ritter, head of the state laboratory.

Gould, Exxon's medical chief, said in his 1989 speech that just as the oil company was preparing to collect samples from workers in June, the bug disappeared.

But Gould's contention was contradicted by internal Exxon reports that surfaced years later in the Stubblefield case. Those documents show that workers continued to make about 300 clinic visits each week through August 1989. The visits didn't begin to decline until September, when the cleanup wound down and workers were laid off.

Before heading home that summer, about 1,800 of the cleanup workers filed injury claims with the Alaska Workers' Compensation office. The bulk were for injuries that might be expected among laborers at a heavy construction site: sprains, cuts and bruises. But the agency also reported 264 claims for respiratory problems, 13 for chemical burns, 34 for systemic poisoning, and 129 for undefined illnesses.

Stubblefield and Carey believe other workers besides the ones who sued might still be suffering effects.

"My fear is there are a lot of people who have been exposed who don't know to look at this," Carey said. "Who don't know that the little ache in their back that is real persistent that might need to be investigated, and they need to tell the doctors they see that they were exposed to chemicals."

Under state law, workers generally have two years to file a claim when they are hurt at work. But if the employer fails to report a workplace injury or illness to the state worker compensation office, the two-year statute of limitations doesn't apply. Attorney Dennis Mestas, who represented one of the workers in a lawsuit, contends this means that workers who believe they are suffering illnesses from the spill may still file a claim.

The reports

By the end of the summer, the final NIOSH report showed that agency officials gave up asking for clinical data that would have revealed how many of the workers reported upper respiratory problems.

Though NIOSH knew there were upper respiratory problems, the agency decided it didn't need to know more for its final report. The agency looked at the Alaska Workers' Compensation data and concluded that the number of worker-reported respiratory problems was consistent with a "bronchitis-type rather than chemical-induced illness." Crowded living conditions probably were to blame, the agency wrote.

The state was counting on NIOSH to take the lead examining worker health issues. But Middaugh remembered NIOSH trying and failing to get data from Exxon.

The company "refused to open the records," he said. "We were quite frustrated."

"They were supposed to give us that," said Mitch Singal, a NIOSH medical officer in Cincinnati. "We had a legal right to that data under the Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970."

"It looked to us like it was going to take a legal effort to obtain the data," said Tim Pizatella, NIOSH's deputy director of the division of safety research. While the agency has the legal authority to subpoena the records, it didn't have the staff to pursue the case, he said.

Bingham, who led the Laborers team that looked at worker conditions, was critical of both the state and federal government.

"Quite frankly, they should have been more aggressive," she said. "They had subpoena power. It doesn't matter if you have manpower. You move it up on the priority list.

"There could have been a more aggressive stance by the Alaska OSHA and (the regional) OSHA office in Seattle," she said. "But the government just folded."

Before cleanup worked resumed the next spring, the state Department of Labor wrote Exxon stating it had decided that all 1,200 workers hired for cleanup work the second summer would be required to undergo 24 hours of hazardous materials training. Workers handling the chemical cleaners Corexit and Inipol would need an additional 16 hours. The state offered no explanation for the policy change.

The Coast Guard's 1993 final report notes that questions and concerns about worker exposures may not be known for years. "The matter is likely to remain unresolved for some time, and worker health issues may ultimately be litigated, perhaps in significant numbers."

The lawsuits

At first, Carey, now a 42-year-old single mother, didn't link her medical problems with her spill work.

But nearly two years and 20 doctors later, a test showed traces of hydrocarbons in her blood. Since then, she has had a tumor removed from her neck and several unexplained lumps removed from her legs.

"I was fine before I went on the spill," Carey said. "I got all the symptoms while on the spill, and I never got better."

Her lawsuit in 1991 was among the two dozen filed.

The legal briefs and court orders in another - Stubblefield's case - stack nearly two feet high at the state courthouse in Anchorage.

The suits are known as "toxic tort" cases. They are hard cases to prove because it may take years for diseases like cancer to show, and even then, factors like smoking, diet, pre-existing conditions or genetics might be to blame or might have contributed to the disease.

Whether a person's health is damaged by exposure to a toxic substance also depends on the dose, the duration of exposure, whether a person breathed, ate or touched the material and the individual's sensitivity, according to the federal Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry.

Some scientists take it a step further and argue that exposure to multiple hazardous substances at the same time creates an unknown complex toxic reaction. They call it "multiple chemical sensitivity." It's a very controversial area of medicine that many experts don't agree with, including Stubblefield's medical expert, Teitelbaum.

In 1993, some of Exxon's internal medical records became public briefly as a result of the efforts of Mestas, Stubblefield's Anchorage attorney.

But shortly after Exxon turned over the medical reports, the oil company asked the court to bar public access to the records. The Anchorage Daily News obtained a copy of the report before a state court judge agreed to seal the record.

The internal Exxon documents show workers clogged Exxon's makeshift clinics in the Sound all summer. Every week from early June to mid-September, clinics treated 300-500 cases of "URI," health industry code for upper respiratory infections. The category includes any symptoms commonly seen with colds and flu. By the end of the summer, the visits totaled more than 5,600.

Names and Social Security numbers are blacked out on the 180-page computer print-out, so it is not possible to tell how many listings are for the same patients seeking repeat care.

Other internal Exxon memos that Mestas obtained suggest Exxon didn't want health officials looking closely at work conditions.

Gould, Exxon's chief of medicine, wrote in an internal company memo that union experts visiting the spill zone were on "a fishing expedition."

He also cautioned that NIOSH was pursuing the data so it could do a Health Hazard Evaluation, which is done to determine if workers are being exposed to any health hazards on the job.

"We do not need an HHE and should try and avoid it if possible," Gould wrote.

Reviewing the reports

Once he had gathered the internal medical and monitoring reports, attorney Mestas hired the Alaska Health Project, a nonprofit workers' advocacy group in Anchorage, and Teitelbaum, the Denver toxicologist, to review them.

Health officials and Exxon did not look carefully at the toxicity of weathered crude oil and its effects when combined with other factors, according to Teitelbaum.

In a deposition in the Stubblefield case, he contends that the steamy oil mist was much more toxic than Exxon reported; that the saltwater in the mist was more dangerous to workers than was appreciated because it contained a host of micro-organisms; that the workers didn't have adequate protection from the mist and other chemicals; and that workers may have been exposed to excessive diesel fumes.

"I believe that what has been called oil mist was a far more complicated and complex exposure than has been appreciated," Teitelbaum said.

He said the monitoring Exxon did that summer was inadequate. For example, the company didn't test for excessive levels of Limonene, the active ingredient in De-Solv-it, the chemical cleaner used to wash workers' raincoats, boots and gloves. Limonene can cause skin inflammation and a type of asthma linked to chemical exposure, he said.

"Exxon and Veco people ... apparently regard it as not even worth thinking about, and so there are no measurements of the exposures to these materials," he said. "That's a major failure. This is not benign material."

He also questioned why so many air samples were taken for the presence of benzene, when it was understood that it evaporates quickly, but so few tests were done for the presence of cancer-causing PAHs.

"Something was going on," Teitelbaum said. "But I am unable to answer what was going on because the documentation was simply not extensive enough."

After looking at the number of upper respiratory problems workers reported, Teitelbaum said a special team of occupational medicine experts should have been assembled to figure out what the problem was and how to correct it.

Most exposure standards for toxins are written based on an eight-hour per day, 40 hour per week work schedule. The Alaska Health Project noted that spill workers were on the job 12 hours a day or more for two weeks solid. Exxon did not adjust allowable exposures to reflect the longer exposures, the nonprofit noted.

More recently, a team of scientists in Juneau has raised new questions about the toxicity of weathered crude oil.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration scientists found PAHs may be far more toxic than thought. Though their studies were on fish eggs, the biologists and chemist who worked on the project said the genetic-altering effects of the PAHs suggests humans are vulnerable too.

Word of the internal Exxon medical records that Mestas obtained from Exxon reached Washington, D.C., where Rep. John Dingell, then chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, ordered an investigation. Two committee staff members were sent to Anchorage to learn why the federal government had never obtained the worker health records.

But a committee spokesman said the investigation fizzled just as it was getting under way when the committee staff members got diverted to another probe - allegations that Alyeska Pipeline Service Co. had hired a security firm to illegally spy on and discredit critics.

Lingering lawsuits

In Stubblefield's case, Teitelbaum concluded hot saltwater spray inflamed his lungs, making them more susceptible to the excessive diesel fumes from his crane. And the diesel soot carried irritants, including the potentially cancer-causing toxins found in weathered crude, deep into his lungs.

Stubblefield's case settled out-of-court in late 1994. The terms of the agreement prohibit Stubblefield and his attorney from revealing the amount.

But two years later, insurance companies representing Exxon and Veco got into a legal dispute over which was responsible for payments. A separate lawsuit followed and revealed that after spending more than $1 million to fight the case, Exxon and its insurance companies settled with Stubblefield for $2 million.

Miller, the Veco attorney, called Stubblefield's suit an "unfortunate" and "discrete" case.

The oil company and contractor also settled with another spill worker, Richard Merrill, for $10,000, according to Miller.

Carey's case is scheduled for trial in Texas in June.

Other workers with complaints, like Whittier boat harbor maintenance worker Dale Arneson, didn't go to court. Arneson said he continues to be short of breath, but he gave up going to doctors because nothing helped. He didn't sue because he thought it would be impossible to link his health problems to his spill work.

In McJemsey's case, Exxon initially paid some of her medical bills, said son Roger. But as her legal case against the company lingered, Exxon stopped paying. With her health rapidly failing in 1994, McJemsey decided she wanted to leave Alaska. She accepted a $10,000 settlement from Exxon, her son said. She died two years later, as she was making final plans for her move.

"She felt like her life was at an end because of the chemicals she handled," he said. "She didn't blame it on the oil companies. She felt God had a reason for this."

Smith, who remembers being told the weathered crude was as safe as pancake syrup, said his story is much the same as other workers who sued Exxon. Until that summer he was robust and worked long days as a logger and garbage hauler.

Just last fall, Smith, now a 46-year-old scrapyard owner, was diagnosed with a pre-cancerous tumor on his lower intestines.

His lawsuit was thrown out by a judge after Exxon objected to one of the chief medical experts who was to testify on his behalf. The court agreed with Exxon that the proposed expert wasn't qualified.

Smith estimated that he pocketed about $160,000 that summer. But when thinking back to 1989, it means nothing to him.

"There's no way in hell I'd go out on another oil spill for any amount of money," he said. "It wasn't worth it."

Reporter Natalie Phillips can be reached at nphillips@adn.com.

Legacy of a Spill: Stories | Illustrations | Photos

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