Nov 19, 2001
For the past 12 years, thousands of workers who cleaned up the Exxon Valdez oil spill in Alaska in 1989 have been suffering all kinds of health problems. The ailments include skin rashes, hair loss, hearing loss, breathing problems, nausea, severe headaches, joint pain, cataracts, damage to various inner organs and lung cancer.
This is by no means a surprise. Exxon provided hardly any protective gear to the 15,000 workers who took part in cleaning up the 11 million gallons of crude oil which spilled off the shore of Alaska. Even though the air was filled with oil mist containing toxic chemicals and highly hazardous fumes given off by the strong solvents used in the cleanup, respirators were often not available. Gloves often didn't fit and were useless. Workers were issued rain suits which may keep water out, but not other chemicals. Sheds, in which workers were cleaning oil from birds and other animals, were poorly ventilated.
When workers complained about respiratory problems, Exxon told them they must have colds or the flu from living together in close quarters. The company dismissed the workers' concerns saying that crude oil had very low toxicity once it was weathered.
As usual, government officials backed the company. Without examining any data, agents of the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) said that there was no sign of a health threat to cleanup workers. Exxon and its cleanup contractor, VECO Inc., denied government investigators access to medical records which showed that a large number of workers visited clinics with breathing complaints. And the government made no effort to get the records. These came to light only years later in court hearings. And finally, when Exxon requested that the spill not be designated a hazardous waste cleanup, federal officials went along with the company and allowed workers to have only four hours of training before starting to clean.
When workers sued Exxon in frustration, they found only more deaf ears. Court authorities dismissed most of the lawsuits before even going to trial. The only case that came anywhere near a trial was settled by Exxon for two million dollars. The company's strategy is to drag the cases for years without a conclusion in order to outlast the workers. So far, Exxon has paid only 900 million dollars – a small fraction of the company's annual profits – in a settlement with the federal and state governments. Just about two weeks ago, an appeals court overturned a jury's five-billion-dollar judgement in favor of thousands of fishermen, small businessmen and Alaska residents.
In the meantime, of course, the workers continue to suffer and to die. They pay the heavy price for Exxon to protect its astronomical profits with the complicity of government officials.