Lawyers probe health claims of Exxon Valdez spill cleanup workers

Posted: Tuesday, November 06, 2001

ANCHORAGE (AP) -- Workers who suspect they suffered serious health problems from helping clean up the 11-million-gallon Exxon Valdez oil spill are being asked to come forward.

Erin Brockovich and her boss, California lawyer Ed Masry, have teamed up with Anchorage attorney Michael Schneider to look into reports of health problems among the 15,000 workers who helped clean up Prince William Sound after the 1989 spill.

Brockovich and Masry have had big success in this arena before. The story of their $333 million victory against Pacific Gas and Electric Co. for polluting groundwater was portrayed in the Hollywood movie ''Erin Brockovich,'' starring Julia Roberts.

Thousands of spill workers complained of respiratory problems but were told they had colds or flu, Schneider said Monday. Exxon and Veco Inc., hired by Exxon to do the cleanup, should have known better, he said.

''These poor folks had evidence of toxic exposure,'' Schneider said. ''They (the companies) knew or should have known people were being exposed to a lot of fresh oil on those beaches. They knew or should have known that oil, along with diesel fumes, along with the chemicals, was being put into the air.''

Masry said he suspects that Exxon, now Exxon Mobil, rushed to clean up the spill while overlooking worker safety. For example, he said, workers cleaned oil from birds and other wildlife while working in poorly ventilated sheds.

''They did not pay enough attention to the safety of workers who were cleaning it up,'' he said.

Exxon Mobil said similar allegations have arisen before, but fewer than 25 workers have sued the company over allegations involving exposure to crude oil and chemicals used in the cleanup. Eight of the claims have been dismissed by the courts, the company said, and seven were settled.

''The most toxic components in fresh crude oil evaporate quickly and would not have been of concern to those responding to the spill,'' said Exxon Mobil spokesman Tom Cirigliano. ''The cleanup of the oil was a remarkably safe operation.''

There is nothing to suggest that the cleanup systematically produced any illnesses or injuries, he said. The reported respiratory infections were caused from having people living for extended periods in close quarters, he maintained.

''Veco as well as Exxon did everything we thought and felt was in order to protect the safety of workers,'' said Jamie Slack, vice president for human resources at Anchorage-based Veco.

Masry and Schneider are looking into the complaints at the urging of Riki Ott, a marine biologist from Cordova. Ott said she's heard for years from people who say the cleanup sickened them permanently.

Respiratory problems were caused by breathing an oil-laden mist created by the use of high-pressure hoses to clean the shoreline, and chemicals founds in degreasers also were driven deep into the lungs, said Ott, who holds a doctorate in marine toxicology from the University of Washington.

The injured workers include Ron Smith of Soldotna who set absorbent booms in his skiff and never wore a respirator, according to a letter Brockovich is sending to cleanup workers. Smith's symptoms included severe headaches, respiratory problems and achy joints, according to Brockovich.

''Ron sought treatment from a chemical decontamination clinic. His blood work showed he had high levels of chemicals found in crude oil and solvents,'' her letter said.

Brockovich's letter also highlighted Phyllis LaJoie of Honolulu, saying her blood also showed high levels of chemicals found in crude oil and solvents. LaJoie worked for two months washing and spraying clothes and gear used by beach workers. The clothes were washed with degreasers because laundry detergent could not get them clean.

''Oil residue and mist always splashed on her face and sometimes in her eyes. She usually did not wear a respirator because they were not available,'' Brockovich's letter said. LaJoie's symptoms included nausea, skin rashes and sore throats. In 1993, she was diagnosed with nonhereditary diabetes and an enlarged liver.

Ott said training for cleanup workers consisted of viewing a four-hour video. They were not told what chemicals they were being exposed to or what the long-term health effects could be, she said.

''The people got misdiagnosed and mistreated. In reality, they had chemical poisoning,'' Ott said.

Exxon Mobil in August made its final payment in a $900 million damage settlement involving the company, the federal government and the state in 1991. A $5 billion civil damage award against the company, ordered by a federal court jury in Anchorage in 1994, remains on appeal.

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