Cleanup workers shovel and bag oiled sand on the beach in Orange Beach on June 15, 2010, after the oil spill on the Gulf Coast. Some workers have joined a lawsuit after reporting health problems.
WHAT IS MULTIDISTRICT LITIGATION?An MDL consolidates into one court multiple lawsuits filed throughout a large area that share common facts and law. It can be made up of both class actions and individual claims.
Beasley Allen is one of more than a dozen law firms from around the country representing clients involved in this lawsuit.
Gary Stewart of Mobile grew up on the water. After the explosion on the Deepwater Horizon rig and the subsequent oil spill, the company he captained a boat for signed on to help with the cleanup. He didn't know until the day he left for a 28-day assignment that his boat would be spreading a chemical dispersant near the site of the destroyed oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico. For more than a month, he says, he worked and lived without a respirator.
Ricky Thrasher of Orange Beach answered an ad on Craigslist and got himself on a shrimping boat that was rounding up oil in the Vessels of Opportunity program. He saw it as a chance to do some good, and make some good money.
"I was out there for six days, and I had to call them to come get me, I was so sick," Thrasher said. He's still sick. Among his list of symptoms are as many as 16 bowel movements a day.
Robyn Hill of Foley worked as a greeter of sorts to the tourists on Gulf Shores' beaches. It was the greatest job, she said. After the oil began coming ashore, the tourists had to share the beach with environmentalists, hazardous materials teams and the media. But her job didn't change.
"We were still in our shorts and T-shirts, greeting people."
Until she passed out on the beach one day in June.
They didn't have much in common before last year. Now Stewart, Thrasher and Hill are unemployed, uninsured, in debt and in pain. They say they can't work; they can barely function.
They say they used to be healthy. Now they're not.
They say they had no clue what they were working with and were being exposed to during the oil spill cleanup process.
And they want someone to make it right -- to make them right.
The three are now part of a multidistrict litigation filed in U.S. District Court in New Orleans. Plaintiffs are asking for compensatory and punitive damages and medical screening and monitoring. Defendants include BP, which owned the oil well and was leasing the Deepwater Horizon rig, Transocean Ltd., which owned the rig, and Nalco Co., the company from which BP purchased chemical dispersants to use in the cleanup.
Like Dawn soap'
After a few days on the water, Stewart said he began to have headaches. His eyes watered.
"You could really smell the fumes inside the wheelhouse," he said. But, he said, he got used to it.
While the crews that actually applied the dispersant were wearing protective gear, including full-face respirators, Stewart said he wasn't offered a respirator. And didn't know if he needed one.
"I had never heard of dispersants, didn't know what it was," he said. "They told us it was like Dawn soap, but a bit stronger."
In late May 2010, the Environmental Protection Agency directed BP to use a less toxic form of dispersant to break up the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. BP used more than 1.8 million gallons of two types of Corexit, 9500 and 9527, according to the complaint, which went on to say that both are "harmful to human health and that dermal exposure, inhalation and ingestion should be avoided."
Nalco defended its products. The company's chief technology officer, Mani Ramesh, said in a June 2010 news release: "The use of Corexit dispersants to break up the oil in the Gulf of Mexico has been widely acknowledged by government officials as a safe, effective and proven response.
"Its ingredients rapidly biodegrade, do not bio-accumulate and are commonly found in popular household products. And because the dispersant works by spreading oil particles evenly through the water column, it is extremely unlikely that individuals along the Gulf Coast would come into contact with it."
Ramesh went on to say that those working closely with dispersants should adhere to safety guidelines and that federal guidelines required that the dispersants not be sprayed within two miles of a boat or platform or three miles of a shoreline.
It wasn't until Stewart returned to shore and took his boat to a decontamination site to be cleaned that he said he saw reason to be concerned.
"The dispersant had ate the paint off the hull of the boat," he said. "I thought, 'What is this doing to me? What is going to happen four years down the road?'"
Stewart said he wanted to find out his options in seeking medical treatment, and a statute of limitations. But he said when his employer found that out, he was terminated. Today, the 39-year-old's medical symptoms include sores on his skin, numbness in his extremities, stomach problems and shortness of breath.His wife got a job a few months ago to try to make up for his lost income, but Stewart, the father of 10- and 6-year-olds, said his family's already lost their home and vehicles. They're living in an apartment his father is helping to pay for.
Without insurance, he hasn't been able to afford medical care, so he takes Tylenol or Advil for pain relief.
"As far as paying for doctor bills, it's almost impossible," he said. "My kids' food and clothes come first."
What does he want?
"I'd like to have my health back," he said. "Have my issues taken care of. And be brought back to normal. Not to have to come to my daddy at 39 years old and have him pay my rent," he said. "I should be taking care of him, not him taking care of me."
'I begged for help'
Like Stewart, Thrasher was on a boat in the Gulf. And like Stewart, he says he didn't wear a respirator.
"We were told that the (hazard) level did not require them," he said.
His job was to help corral and gather the oil on the water's surface. He said he saw the dispersant being applied in the distance.
"I came in contact with the dispersant the first day of work -- June 7," he said. "The first day, you got a headache and you account it to the heat," he said.
His first symptom was diarrhea. Now, he has frequent bowel movements, night sweats, headaches, insomnia -- at one point, he said he went six days without sleeping -- and memory loss.
"I can't remember what I'm supposed to do most days," Thrasher, 50, said Tuesday. "I had to set an alarm to remember this interview."
But his most concerning ailment may be his mood swings. He goes from feelings of euphoria to anger. It's kept him from working.
"I don't know if it's an anxiety attack, but I just can't deal with the public and I just want to get back into my dark room."
Between mid-July and October, Thrasher went to 10 clinics looking for help for his gastrointestinal problems."Finally, I had to check myself into a hospital," he said.
He's been hospitalized three times in the last year and has been told he needs to see a gastrointestinal specialist, he said.
"I don't have the money for a colonoscopy," he said.
He's filed a claim with the Gulf Coast Claims Facility and communicated with his previous employer about his medical issues and bills.
"They're trying to decide if they should be paying for my treatment or not," he said.
Thrasher said he knows some people think that those filing lawsuits against BP are opportunists. He said he decided to sue only after, "I'd begged for help."
"They think you want money," he said. "But I just want to be back to a peaceful mind. I'm physically losing my ability to think like I used to. I need help.
"I need professional medical treatment ASAP. I want to have some knowledge of what is wrong with me."
'It felt like I was dying'
Like Thrasher, Hill says her thought process "is off" since she spent weeks on the beach watching the cleanup process.
"I saw boats distributing something, I don't know what it was," she said. "There were planes going over dispersing stuff.
"At the time, I did not know there was a chemical out there," Hill said.
Hill remembers watching swimsuit-clad children play in the water off Gulf Shores as workers in hazmat suits combed the beaches.
"Kids would bring tarballs to me, saying, 'Here lady, look what I found,' and put it in my hand. I just threw them in Dumpsters."
Her initial symptoms last summer included stomachaches and blood in her urine.
"It felt like I was dying," she said.
Since then, she said her symptoms have "morphed" into respiratory issues, skin irritation, dizziness and headaches. She's woken up in the night unable to breathe.
"Some days, I feel like living is not going to be part of what's accomplished here."
She said she's repeatedly asked BP for help.
"I went to them when I got sick early on, in June, in July, in August, begging them for help. BP told me at the time to go to the doctor and they would pay for it.
But she said the scans she's told she needs cost thousands of dollars."You're supposed to pay for that and then get reimbursed?" she said.
She has no insurance, she said, because her husband's provider dropped her in January, saying she had a pre-existing condition.
"My credit is all screwed up," she said. "I owe a lot of money."
All she did, she said, was "be nice to everyone on the beach."
As the Gulf Coast spill was unlike any previous oil spill, so was the response. And so was workers' possible exposure to chemicals.
Now, the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences is in the initial stages of a 10-year study to monitor and document the health of those who responded. BP contributed $10 million to the study. The plan is to follow 55,000 workers and volunteers in Alabama, Louisiana, Mississippi and Florida.
"Our goals are to collect unbiased data and make connections between (peoples') current health and what they did during the oil spill," said Dale Sandler, the study's lead investigator.
Several things made this oil spill different from others, Sandler said. Exposure to the oil may have been less harmful because the 200 million gallons of crude oil were released underwater -- as opposed to being spilled on top of the water's surface -- and spread over hundreds of miles instead of being in one defined area.
"I don't think we have enough scientific basis to say, by the time (a tarball) got to the beach, how bad it was," she said. "The reason that we're spending all this time and effort on this study is that there have been no studies on lower levels of exposure."
While it's commonly accepted that an unprotected person shouldn't handle oil or dispersants at high levels of exposure, in the spill response a lot of exposure assessments were being done as they went, Sandler said. Decisions about how careful people needed to be were made in real-time.
"The knowledge base as far as, should you pick up a tarball, it wasn't there," she said. Cleanup workers wore gloves, Sandler said, because skin contact was a potential concern.
In some cases, wearing proper protective gear was worse because of the heat. Decisions were made to recommend no heavy protective gear when the consensus was that the exposure risk was lower."I think because there was a gradient of exposure, there was a gradient of use (of appropriate gear)," she said.
Conventional wisdom says that the people who had the nastiest jobs, like burning oil, should be the ones to get sick first if there are health effects, she said.
So far, the study has about 1,000 participants. A substantial percentage have reported health issues, Sandler said, adding that other factors need to be considered before any conclusions are drawn.
The study will take into account factors such as obesity, medical history, blood pressure, diet and whether the participant was a smoker or drinker.
"I do know that this is not a healthy worker population to begin with," Sandler said. "There were a lot of people who were overweight and out of shape, and they were having heat stress," she said.
Stress is another factor. Sandler said she's heard of people complaining of severe health problems after being exposed to oil and dispersant, but some of the symptoms could be related to stress and anxiety.
"People who are depressed also are fatigued," she said. "It's a very complicated exposure experience, because it's not just the oil."
Stewart, Thrasher and Hill are represented by the Montgomery law firm Beasley, Allen, Crow, Methvin, Portis & Miles P.C.
Attorney Parker Miller said Beasley Allen has at least 200 clients who claim they became ill after being exposed to oil and or dispersants. The firm has even more clients who say their livelihoods were damaged because of the spill.
"We started representing fishermen and businesses, then we started finding out that many of our fishermen were getting sick," Miller said.
Miller said a February 2012 trial will determine fault for the explosion and subsequent spill.
Representatives from BP and the Gulf Coast Claims Facility could not be reached late last week. The Associated Press early this month reported that Kenneth Feinberg, administrator for the GCCF, said he hadn't seen any claims filed that suggested the Gulf spill cleanup had caused medical illness.
That's bogus, Miller said. Both Thrasher and Hill filed claims with the GCCF, according to court records.
"He's either lying or he doesn't know," Parker said about Feinberg.