More than three years after BP’s Deepwater Horizon explosion set off the worst oil spill in U.S. history, divers who worked in the vicinity of the spill collecting coral samples and taking journalists to the spill site say they are still suffering from a spectrum of illnesses they blame on their exposure to the contaminated Gulf waters.
Scott Porter, a professional diver with a degree in marine biology, told the Tampa Bay Times that federal officials “kept telling us it was safe” to dive in the Gulf, so he and some fellow divers continued their work.
At the time, Mr. Porter, 42, was physically fit and active and had completed some 6,000 dives in his career. But in May 2010, after he and his colleagues took Jeff Corwin out into the Gulf to film a story for CBS, Mr. Porter encountered “a cloud of micro-droplets of dispersed oil 10 feet thick from the surface” and long “mucus-like strands of what appeared to be oil that was not completely dispersed” while diving to a depth of 80 feet, the Tampa Bay Times reports.
After that dive, Mr. Porter became sick. According to the Tampa Bay Times, “his chest burned, his head pounded, he couldn’t stray far from a restroom.”
Dale Englehardt, another Louisiana diver who worked in the vicinity of the spill, told the Tampa Bay Times that he was dizzy and disoriented and felt sick after diving near Barataria Bay. “Now the bottoms of my feet have blisters. They pop and go away, but then they come back, and now they’re on my chest and back, too.”
Mr. Porter said that before he gave up diving in the Gulf, he stopped using a porous wet suit and started wearing a waterproof dry suit such as those worn on cold-water dives. His colleagues teased him about his diving gear, but soon after they too began getting sick with similar symptoms.
“It was crazy, the stuff that was happening,” Mr. Porter told the Tampa Bay Times.
He stopped diving in the Gulf when he saw the effect the oil and chemical dispersant Corexit, which BP used in record quantities to break the spill into small particles, had on his dive gear. His breathing regulator was clogged with the oily substance and the vulcanized rubber on his dry suit had disintegrated.
Unfortunately, almost nothing is known about the effects of Corext oil dispersants on human health and marine life. Medical professionals and other researchers studying the problem are unable to do much beyond treating symptoms and assuming a “wait and see” approach.
Some 33,000 Gulf Coast residents and oil spill cleanup workers have been enrolled in a 10-year study on the medical effects of oil dispersants conducted by the National Institutes of Health (NIH). The NIH has signed up 33,000 people across the Gulf Coast to follow them for 10 years and see if the oil or dispersant made them ill.
Porter and his fellow divers have refused to take part in it because, as the Tampa Bay Times says “the study is just a study.”
“They just want to watch us die,” fellow diver Steve Kolian told the Tampa Bay Times.