Oil dispersant chemicals are causing concerns ten years after the BP oil spill

Apr 16, 2020

An Alabama Public Radio news feature, which is part of APR 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.

This month marks ten years since the Gulf oil spill. Over the past four months, the APR news team has been following up on issues related to this disaster. That effort includes our print reporters along the Alabama Gulf coast that APR recruited and trained to do radio stories from Mobile and Baldwin Counties. The 2010 spill is blamed for doing ongoing damage to the environment. But residents are still report physical harm to themselves ten years after the spill.

“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."