“It’s as safe as Dawn dishwashing liquid.” That’s what Jamie Griffin says the BP man told her about the smelly, rainbow-streaked gunk coating the floor of the “floating hotel” where Griffin was feeding hundreds of cleanup workers during the BP oil disaster in the Gulf of Mexico. Apparently, the workers were tracking the gunk inside on their boots. Griffin, as chief cook and maid, was trying to clean it. But even boiling water didn’t work.
“The BP representative said, ‘Jamie, just mop it like you’d mop any other dirty floor,’” Griffin recalls in her Louisiana drawl.
It was the opening weeks of what everyone, echoing President Barack Obama, was calling “the worst environmental disaster in American history.” At 9:45 p.m. local time on April 20, 2010, a fiery explosion on the Deepwater Horizon oil rig had killed 11 workers and injured 17. One mile underwater, the Macondo well had blown apart, unleashing a gusher of oil into the gulf. At risk were fishing areas that supplied one third of the seafood consumed in the U.S., beaches from Texas to Florida that drew billions of dollars’ worth of tourism to local economies, and Obama’s chances of reelection. Republicans were blaming him for mishandling the disaster, his poll numbers were falling, even his 11-year-old daughter was demanding, “Daddy, did you plug the hole yet?”
Griffin did as she was told: “I tried Pine-Sol, bleach, I even tried Dawn on those floors.” As she scrubbed, the mix of cleanser and gunk occasionally splashed onto her arms and face.
Within days, the 32-year-old single mother was coughing up blood and suffering constant headaches. She lost her voice. “My throat felt like I’d swallowed razor blades,” she says.
Then things got much worse.
Like hundreds, possibly thousands, of workers on the cleanup, Griffin soon fell ill with a cluster of excruciating, bizarre, grotesque ailments. By July, unstoppable muscle spasms were twisting her hands into immovable claws. In August, she began losing her short-term memory. After cooking professionally for 10 years, she couldn’t remember the recipe for vegetable soup; one morning, she got in the car to go to work, only to discover she hadn’t put on pants. The right side, but only the right side, of her body “started acting crazy. It felt like the nerves were coming out of my skin. It was so painful. My right leg swelled—my ankle would get as wide as my calf—and my skin got incredibly itchy.”
“These are the same symptoms experienced by soldiers who returned from the Persian Gulf War with Gulf War syndrome,” says Dr. Michael Robichaux, a Louisiana physician and former state senator, who treated Griffin and 113 other patients with similar complaints. As a general practitioner, Robichaux says he had “never seen this grouping of symptoms together: skin problems, neurological impairments, plus pulmonary problems.” Only months later, after Kaye H. Kilburn, a former professor of medicine at the University of Southern California and one of the nation’s leading environmental health experts, came to Louisiana and tested 14 of Robichaux’s patients did the two physicians make the connection with Gulf War syndrome, the malady that afflicted an estimated 250,000 veterans of that war with a mysterious combination of fatigue, skin inflammation, and cognitive problems.
Meanwhile, the well kept hemorrhaging oil. The world watched with bated breath as BP failed in one attempt after another to stop the leak. An agonizing 87 days passed before the well was finally plugged on July 15. By then, 210 million gallons of Louisiana sweet crude had escaped into the Gulf of Mexico, according to government estimates, making the BP disaster the largest accidental oil leak in world history.
Yet three years later, the BP disaster has been largely forgotten, both overseas and in the U.S. Popular anger has cooled. The media have moved on. Today, only the business press offers serious coverage of what the Financial Times calls “the trial of the century”—the trial now under way in New Orleans, where BP faces tens of billions of dollars in potential penalties for the disaster. As for Obama, the same president who early in the BP crisis blasted the “scandalously close relationship” between oil companies and government regulators two years later ran for reelection boasting about how much new oil and gas development his administration had approved.
Whatever money BP is forced to pay a a result of this trial doesn’t change the fact that they allowed an unconscionable environmental catastrophe to occur, and that, unless we change this morbid system, it will continue to happen again and again.