Oil and Water, Ten Years Later

Apr 21, 2020

An Alabama Public Radio documentary, which is part of APR's effort to address the "news desert" along the state's Gulf coast. APR recruited and trained veteran print journalists in Mobile and Baldwin counties to join our news team to do radio stories from along the Gulf coast.

Today (April 20th)  marks 10 years since the BP Gulf oil spill. Over the past four months, the APR news team has been following up on issues related to this disaster. That includes speaking again with people we met back in 2010 during APR’s national award-winning series “Oil & Water.” Ten years after the spill, one of those issues appears to be the mental health impact of the spill.

“I can tell you as a psychiatrist…you didn’t need to be a psychiatrist. You could feel the anxiety and the dread,” said Dr. Richard Powers, who was Medical Director for the Alabama Department of Public Health.

Back in 2010 Byron Dunn was with the business support group Alabama Technology Network.

“Some of them were so overwhelmed, they couldn’t even tell you their name,” he said.

Powers and Dunn held different jobs, but both were along the Gulf coast for the same reason. Ten years after the spill, we sat down with Powers at his office in Birmingham. Even a decade later, Powers said it was the stress among Gulf coast residents he remembers most.

“You have to remember there was the fire, and the release, and then there was a period where there was no oil, but it was coming,” Powers said. “So, people had a long time to worry about that.”

Dr. Robert Powers, formerly Medical Director for the Alabama Department of Public Health
Credit APR's Pat Duggins

“Well, I would be looking for increased risk of depression, substance abuse,” he recalled back in 2010. “I’d be looking for more conduct disorder in kids.”

It was stories like these that Powers was looking for during the 2010 Oil Spill Recovery conference. He’d seen the bad reactions of people caught up in Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

Ten years ago, he told APR he had one thing in particular he was watching out for.

“We are concerned about persons becoming so desperate, that they act to harm themselves,” he said.

He didn’t have to wait long.

"Right around this time, the media was all over the coast, and also right around this time, there was the suicide of a fairly well known boat captain,” Powers said. “And, that petrified everybody.’’

“I actually thought Allen fell off the boat, because he was somewhat notoriously clumsy,” Tracey Kruse said.

She and her husband Allen ran a charter boat business. Their boat was the "Rookie." We spoke with her in 2010.

“As soon as I hung up the phone with him, my phone rang again, and it was sister, and I could tell she was just in a panic,” Kruse recalled 10 years ago. “She kept saying ‘Don’t leave the house. Don’t leave the house. I’m gonna come there.’ And, I kept telling her, 'Tell me what?'…because she already knew. And, I kept telling her, 'Tell me…what’s wrong?' And she wouldn’t tell me. She said ‘I’m not going to tell you, until I get there. You just need to stay home.’ So, I called my brother-in-law, because I knew he would tell me…and he told me.”

“And the first thing I said was, They’re wrong,'” Kruse said. “'He did not do that.' Because Allen wasn’t that…that was not him. He was not that person. But Joe, he told me. He said it’s true.”

“It was a horrible event,” Powers said,“but I think it was wake-up call for the stress people were experiencing."

APR's attempts to contact Kruse for a follow-up interview went unanswered.

“[Of] course, when it happened it was terrible to watch,” Dunn said.

While Powers was gathering data on mental health issues, Dunn was in much the same boat. He wasn’t a psychiatrist, but Dunn was hearing many of the same stories that haunt him to this day. One was about shrimp boat captain in particular.

Shrimping waters off the coast had been closed to the oil spill. Dunn’s eyes welled up he recalled what the fisherman had to say about his teenaged children.

“They’re asking me…they want to make plans to go to college next year,” Dunn said. “I don’t even know if we’re going to have a home next year.”

In 2010, dealing with mental issues didn’t stop there. Dunn recalls sitting in one meeting on depression led by a co-worker.

“And, she started going through…people want to be alone, they don’t want to talk to anybody, they want to sleep a lot, and she’s going down this list and I was hitting seven out of nine of them myself, just because of the stress of what I was doing and hearing these stories one after another after another,” Dunn said.

Powers said studies of the BP oil spill and other man-made disasters show that even after 10 years, the mental health scars still appear to be there.

“And, I think the studies show that people who went the stress and distress of potentially catastrophic environmental disaster, probably have increased risk of depression and anxiety, and perhaps alcohol use, I’m not sure,” he said.

Powers said he'd like to see more data specifically about Gulf coast residents, but that data appears hard to come by. There may be a reason for this, and Powers isn’t happy about it.

“The places that took the hit where Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama,” he said. “So, all the dollars from those settlements should have gone either to do research with those populations or build infrastructure in those populations.”

“I didn’t think about getting sprayed because I didn’t think they were using the dispersents anymore,” says Lori Bosarge,who lives in the Gulf coast town of Coden. She’s referring to chemical dispersants used back in 2010 during the cleanup effort to remove oil from the BP spill.

“About two hours later, everywhere my skin was exposed, all of the pores on my arms and my face and, and all, um, just swelled up and I was just red all over,” she recalls.

Photos by Lori Bosarge of rashes she attributes to oil dispersant chemicals.
Credit Lori Bosarge

Bosarge lives in her husband’s childhood home in Coden. It’s a little fishing village on Porterville Bay, next to Bayou Le Batre. Back in 2010, she would spend her days watching the sunrise and taking photographs. That ended after the oil spill. Low-flying planes and helicopters buzzed over their house to spray chemicals on the oil to make it disappear. It was soon after that she says she started feeling sick.

“I smelled like I was rotting. It was a terrible smell,” says Borsarge. “I asked my husband how he could stand to be in there. He said every time I'd walk out of that room, I'd break out crying. He said, I didn't know if you were ever going to come home."

Bosarge is now in a lawsuit against BP for her medical bills. The problem for her and other people with these symptoms, the science isn’t there.

“We don't yet have documented evidence of real health impact from the dispersant,” says Dr. Missy Partyka. She’s an assistant professor of extension with Mississippi-Alabama Sea Grant Consortium and a member of the oil spill science outreach team. She says there’s a reason for the lack of evidence.

“That comes from a lack of transparency from the government,” says Partyka. “The air of secrecy about the chemicals. There wasn't full disclosure and poor communication. People felt they were being lied to and that anxiety led to depression and negative health outcomes and increase of substance abuse.”

Partyka has heard anecdotal stories from community members concerned of exposure who are self-reporting. She says there have been no documented cases of human health impacts associated with dispersant exposure.

Protesters against the oil dispersant chemical Corexit
Credit climatesciencewatch.org

“We know there are no perfect dispersants. Depending on the size of the spill, it is going to have a negative effect on something,” she says. “The use of Corexit and dispersants occurs under strict circumstances and extreme circumstances. Deepwater Horizon was an extreme situation and people were unprepared how to handle it.”

Still, there are those ready to take Lori Borsarge’s side.

“The world was led to believe that the cleanup was a success, that the dispersants were harmless and life was back to normal,” says environmental activist Lesley Pacey.

“That simply is not the reality for many people along the Gulf coast,” she contends. “What we have here is a population of people who were healthy prior to the oil spill, but a decade later are suffering from serious health problems, cancers, neurological ailments and other chronic health issues. We're seeing premature death and exposed populations and rising cancer rates as a decade into this disaster and those numbers are unfortunately expected to increase.”

Pacey became an environmental activist after her daughter was diagnosed with cancer in 2004. It was part of a Leukemia cluster in Fairhope. Pacey is also associate producer the documentary Cost of Silence about the BP spill, which premiered at the Sundance Film Festival. She works for a law firm helping victims of the oil spill, including Lori Borsarge. Pacey’s not alone on this side of the cause.

“I witnessed chemical burns on people after they had handled or had been sprayed with dispersants,” says Dr. Ricky Ott. She’s a marine toxicologist, and a former commercial fisherwoman in Alaska who saw the impact of the Exxon Valdez oil spill in 1989.

“So when I was in the Gulf during this first year, I began to witness skin rashes on people who sat or walked on beaches that looked clean, but they weren't because the sand grains had a coating of oil contaminants,” says Ott. “The 2012 dispersion initiative report concluded that there was an acceptable level of human health risk as a trade off for using dispersants.”

Bayou LeBatre, Alabama
Credit APR's Lynn Oldshue

It’s been ten years since the BP oil spill began. The estimated discharge of almost five million barrels was one of the largest environmental disasters in history. Besides spending billions of dollars on settlements BP committed a half billion dollars to fund a 10-year research program about the oil spill. However, the human health effects received little attention. Back at Lori Borsarge’s house, she says she’s going to keep fighting. She says she has to.

“It’s not like Louisiana where they have these coalitions and these people come together and they have meetings, and he’s like this is what we’re going to do to protect our area. That doesn’t happen here. And that’s why Bayou Le Batre and Coden are so neglected because the people just mind their own business. You know, they’re good folks. So this is why I still do this because this area is still unhealthy."

“It does come up from time to time. In some cases of something that a result of the oil spill, or was that before or after the oil spill, kind of thing,” said Chris Nelson, who works at Bon Secour seafood in Baldwin County on the eastern shore of Mobile Bay.

It wasn’t the first time we met.

Back in 2010, Nelson was one of hundreds of people attending the first Oil Spill Recovery Conference in Orange Beach. A report by the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management says the Gulf coast fishing industry lost up to one and a half billion dollars in the first eight months after the spill. For people like Chris Nelson at that time, over 9,000 jobs were lost.

A shrimp packer at work at Dominick's Seafood in Bayou LeBatre, Alabama
Credit APR's Pat Duggins

“I mean there’s a lot of fear about what’s…is there another shoe going to drop? We feel like there’s been two shoes drop so far,” Nelson said in 2020, “but, is there another shoe to drop? Is there another revelation about some fear coming, coming to fruition?”

Back then, Nelson’s list of next shoes to drop included a scenario like a Category 2 hurricane with winds pushing even more oil ashore with clean-up crews already having their hands full.

“Well, I think that’s the question,” Nelson said. “No one knows. And the uncertainty is what put such a strain on businesses. How long will it take to get the market that we feel we lost…back?”

On the other side of Mobile Bay, in the town of Bayou Le Batre, we met one seafood businessman who was trying to soldier on.

“Well, what we’re doing is individually quick freezing and packing an institutional pack, 5 pound individually quick frozen shrimp," said Dominick Ficarino in 2010.

He ran Dominick’s Seafood, and still does.

“And we also earlier this morning did one and two pound ready retail ready packages for the grocery store chain,” he said.

Bayou LeBatre, Alabama
Credit APR's Pat Duggins

Workers man the machines at Dominick’s Seafood to take freshly caught shrimp from large blue plastic buckets of ice water and prepare them for market. Before the Gulf oil spill, Ficarino’s fleet fished for shrimp in the Gulf of Mexico. After the disaster, his boats moved to the waters off of Florida.

“I’ve had some tough times in other areas,” he said. “I see that we’re still moving the product, and I see some people are totally scared of gulf shrimp right now.”

And, Ficarino experienced that reaction from the buying public firsthand. For example, Ficarino had been working for a national grocery store chain. That is, until the Gulf oil spill.

“And they elected not to put me in the store because there the other two packers were Texas based packers, even though we’re fishing the same waters side by side,” Ficarino said. “The average consumer is going to read that bag and believe those shrimp came from Texas, and it kinda hurt.”

“Well, we don’t talk about it on a daily basis. It’s something I’ll never forget,” Ficarino said during our follow-up interview ten years after the BP oil spill.

Apparently, the stain left by the Gulf oil spill isn’t something the buying public hasn’t forgotten either. We sat down with Ficarino in his office 10 years later. Following the Gulf oil spill, his business got back to normal, in fact it grew. But, there are still issues.

“Public perception is never going to go away from it. We see that,” he said.

And Ficarino has an example. Years after the spill, he did an in-person seafood cooking demonstration as part of the grand opening of a grocery store. It was a favor for one of his corporate clients. Ficarino’s job was to talk to customers and boil up gulf Shrimp for them to taste.

Gulf shrimp "on ice" being prepared for packing at Dominick's Seafood.
Credit APR's Pat Duggins

“And, one of the things that I noticed, was people walked up, and it’s really a blow,” he said. “(They) look at you and say, ‘He’s from the Gulf, oh—I wouldn’t touch those.’ And that’s something that’s never gonna go away…never.”

Across Mobile Bay, we visited Bonsecour Fisheries. Most of the workforce is out to lunch. But, two oyster shuckers are still at it. Each sits on a stool with a large bucket of freshly caught oysters, shucking knife in hand. The shell is popped open, the flesh scooped out, and then the empty shell is tossed on a pile. It may be 10 years after the spill, but like Ficarino, Chris Nelson still feels it.

“We do, we do still feel it economically,” Nelson said.

We stopped by his office at Bon Secour. His business has grown just Ficarino’s. But, Nelson has his own concerns for the future of his company. He’s worried about imports, and not just from foreign countries like Thailand. Seafood from other U.S. waters cut into his business, too.

An oyster shucker, at work, at Bonsecour Fisheries
Credit APR's Pat Duggins

“Not that a lot of people would think of that as import,” Nelson said. “But, it really is. If you’re bringing oysters from the Pacific northwest or even from the Northeast. That’s imported into your region, at least. And those doors have continued to open wider and wider.”

The doors Nelson is referring to began in 2010 when the fishing waters in the Gulf were closed due to the BP. All Nelson could do was sit and watch while BP tried idea after idea to seal off the well which was leaking an estimate five thousand gallons a day. Nelson recalls one where rope and golf balls were used to try to plug the well.

“I hate the fact that our culture is built around movies instead of books, but I think about that movie Armageddon,” Nelson said. “Bruce Willis looks at Thornton, what is it…Billy Bob Thornton, the character he was playing, and he says ‘this is what you’ve come up with, don’t you have people thinking of better stuff than this?’

Back across Mobile Bay at Dominick’s Seafood, his packers are hard at work. Again, our visit was before the COVID-19 outbreak, so hairnets are the only precaution. Remember the grocery store chain that stopped buying Ficarino’s shrimp because of the spill? He does.

“Never had a slap in the face like that, but it won’t get me,” he said. “I'll bounce back, and I’ll continue to go."

And, we wanted to end our story because of a relatively recent development.

“It’s funny you brought that up,” Ficarino said. “It’s been right at ten years now, and I starting selling them again last year.”

You heard right, one year ago or eight years after the BP oil spill. It took that long for everyone to sit down, talk it out, and heal that wound from the disaster.

Ten years ago, Alabama Gulf Coast residents were looking forward to a busy tourist season. Spring break crowds filled beaches. The months ahead looked great. A few days later, the sands were empty. Signs posted on the beach warned of health hazards. These last few weeks of the COVID-19 outbreak have brought back memories of 2010 for some who were here then.

“Ten years and we’re going through something like this again and stuff. It’s amazing,” says Trish Kerr. She and her family have run The Sand Box souvenir store on Dauphin Island since 1974. On a recent afternoon, she looked past the “Closed” sign on her door at a quiet beach highway.

"I’m not trying to dwell on what’s happening now,” she says. “It’s just very ironic that it seems like it’s 10 years and we’re going through it again, but in a totally different way.”

Dauphin Island, Alabama
Credit Pixabay

In 2010, people could go on the beaches, but the public reaction kept most visitors away.

“It hit us in May and we did not have a good summer,” says Kerr. “I would say it was probably two years before we really kicked back into shape. You’ve got to understand too, we had just gotten over Katrina. We were just starting to get the island going again and then the BP thing hit and it took us a year to a year and a half to convince people that you could eat the seafood. You could swim in the water. You could go on the beach and not get tar on your feet.”

Gulf Coast residents are used to dealing with storms like hurricane Katrina and other potential threats, but the 2010 oil spill was something new.

“When we woke up one day and found out that there was oil headed toward our beaches. We first didn’t have a clue what to do because we’d never experienced something like that,” says Herb Malone. He’s director of Gulf Shores-Orange Beach Tourism and the local convention and visitors bureau.

“However, to our benefit, all of us, all of our organizations, all governmental organizations, all businesses practically, have a plan, a crisis plan because of the inevitable hurricane that’s going to come in the future,” says Malone. “We really pulled that out and literally started to scratch out hurricane and put in the name BP Oil Spill.”

Within days, local officials, including Gulf Shores Mayor Robert Craft and Orange Beach Mayor Tony Kennon, were meeting with community leaders to start planning strategy. The group became known officially at the Coastal Resiliency Coalition. Most people just called it the War Room. For a long time, no one knew what to expect.

“We had an expectation that we were going to lose the summer,” says Lee Sentell, director of the Alabama Department of Tourism. “The great fear at that time was for the summer of 2010 that families from Michigan and Indiana and Ohio would say ‘let’s go to the mountains because we’ve never been to the mountains in Tennessee and we were afraid that they would get there and say ‘oh, gosh, this is great, let’s do this again next summer,” says Sentell.

People did come back. Tourism numbers were up 22 ½ percent on the coast in 2011, which meant a 12 percent jump in statewide totals. Lee Sentell says that even before the spill was over, the tourist industry was working to bring visitors back to Alabama beaches.

Orange Beach, Alabama
Credit Pixabay

“Instead of waiting for recovery, we did a TV commercial,” says Sentell. “So we knew it was not a question of if we were going to recover or when it was going to get cleaned up, but to be prepared for when it did.”

Malone says they’re already making similar plans for this year due to the Coronavirus pandemic. The competition’s going to more intense this time, however.

“We also know that every one of our competitors, including every cruise line and everybody in the mountains and everywhere else is competing for people to come visit,” says Malone. “The competition is going to be much higher because they’ll all be coming out at one time.”

Then and now, businesses have had to scramble and find ways to stay afloat since the COVID-19 situation is under control.

“Business was very bad, but I am of the opinion that the restaurant business is an athletic event and you’ve got to win,” says Richard Schwartz. “You’ve got to do what you’ve got to do to stay open and whatever.”

Schwartz’s company owns several restaurants in Orange Beach and Gulf Shores. In 2010, business came to a stop within days of the spill. He went to a staging area at Perdido Pass, standing outside a locked fence trying to get business providing food to cleanup crews.

Credit Pixabay

“We stood there and had people come out,” Schwartz recalls. “It was hot – hot, hot, hot. And I stood there and we must have looked like idiots and this guy stopped and said ‘what are y’all doing out here?”

A supervisor ordered 110 lunches for the next day. That led to other business.

“In those two days by getting out of the car and standing in the hot sun, we got hooked up doing catering for, it turned out to be, a whole lot of people over a long period of time,” says Schwartz. “So, that’s really what saved our company. It’s all a question of, I don’t know, luck. I’d rather be lucky than good. It was an experience that really made you understand how important… I don’t know, you can’t quit.”

Ten years later, the impact of the Coronavirus was sudden and unexpected again.

“I was looking forward to things booming and it did pretty good,” he says. “Right after Valentine’s Day, business was moving right along and up until we had to shut down, it was moving right along. But we had to shut down because that’s what we were ordered to do and that’s what we did.”

Schwartz says businesses are again adapting, serving take-out food and preparing “Meals on Wheels” for a local church. He says business will recover, but things won’t be the same right away.

“When it first happened, we had to remove tables and lower the density in the restaurant and we did that and I told them yesterday that when we have to come back, we’re not going to be, people are not going to want to sit as tight as they have been sitting, so we’re going to not make them do that,” he says. “It’s part of what we do. I’m glad to do that. Happy. I enjoy doing it. It’s what we do, we feed people."

On Dauphin Island, Trish Kerr says the experience of the oil spill and hurricanes will help Alabama’s Gulf Coast weather this storm. “I think it affected the people on the island more, the residents, because we weren’t allowed to go places that were on our island and they were shut off to us and it angered a lot of people and stuff, but we got through it,” says Kerr. “We’ll get through this one. It’s just, we’re a very resilient island. We really are and the people all stick together and, you know, that’s what makes a small community great to live in.”