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Today is the three-year-anniversary of the event that changed life for so many of us here on the Gulf of Mexico: The explosion at BP's Deepwater Horizon rig off Louisiana, which killed 11 people and triggered the worst oil spill in U.S. history. I was in a private plane flying over the Gulf just hours after the blast and saw the thick plume of black smoke, and I still remember the shock of knowing right away that something terrible had happened. By day's end, I was aware that the ensuing oil leak was much, much worse than BP was telling the public. The first lie of so many.

Now, 36 months later, we deal with the aftershocks every day. You can go out and see some of wonderful Gulf swamps -- so critical in protecting the mainland from devastating storms -- and BP's oil is still there, strangling the tall reeds. Talk to a shrimp boat captain, a Gulf fisherman, or a charter boat operator, and ask whether things on the Gulf are really better than ever -- despite what those incessant TV ads say. But one of the biggest ongoing worries in the region is the health of the hearty souls who answered the call to clean up the Gulf in the spring of 2010. For months, I've been reporting on links between the toxic dispersant Corexit -- which was sprayed in massive quantities in a misguided attempt to break up the oil -- and serious illnesses, from headaches to stomach problems to persistent coughs.

Now a major new investigation by Newsweek -- aided by a courageous whistleblower -- has blown the lid off what should be a major national scandal. BP knew the risks of spraying Corexit -- and instead of informing the cleanup workers, it covered things up:

BP applied two types of Corexit in the gulf. The first, Corexit 9527, was considerably more toxic. According to the NALCO manual, Corexit 9527 is an “eye and skin irritant. Repeated or excessive exposure ... may cause injury to red blood cells (hemolysis), kidney or the liver.” The manual adds: “Excessive exposure may cause central nervous system effects, nausea, vomiting, anesthetic or narcotic effects.” It advises, “Do not get in eyes, on skin, on clothing,” and “Wear suitable protective clothing.”

When available supplies of Corexit 9527 were exhausted early in the cleanup, BP switched to the second type of dispersant, Corexit 9500. In its recommendations for dealing with Corexit 9500, the NALCO manual advised, “Do not get in eyes, on skin, on clothing,” “Avoid breathing vapor,” and “Wear suitable protective clothing.”

It’s standard procedure—and required by U.S. law—for companies to distribute this kind of information to any work site where hazardous materials are present so workers can know about the dangers they face and how to protect themselves. But interviews with numerous cleanup workers suggest that this legally required precaution was rarely if ever followed during the BP cleanup. Instead, it appears that BP told NALCO to stop including the manuals with the Corexit that NALCO was delivering to cleanup work sites.

“It’s my understanding that some manuals were sent out with the shipments of Corexit in the beginning [of the cleanup],” the anonymous source tells me. “Then, BP told NALCO to stop sending them. So NALCO was left with a roomful of unused binders.”

Indeed, the article notes that NALCO is backing away from the way that its product was deployed by BP -- as well it should. The article also reports that workers failed to get the proper protective gear and training, a legal battle that I was heavily involved in during the fateful spring of 2010. The piece -- which is outstanding -- notes that by using a whopping 1.87 million gallons of Corexit BP was also able to convince the media that the spill was not as bad as it was. The action also allowed the Big Oil giant to argue for reduced damages. But the reality was that the dispersant was making things worse for marine life as well as for humans.

The article introduces us to one of these workers exposed to Corexit named Jamie Griffin:

Like hundreds, possibly thousands, of workers on the cleanup, Griffin soon fell ill with a cluster of excruciating, bizarre, grotesque ailments. By July, unstoppable muscle spasms were twisting her hands into immovable claws. In August, she began losing her short-term memory. After cooking professionally for 10 years, she couldn’t remember the recipe for vegetable soup; one morning, she got in the car to go to work, only to discover she hadn’t put on pants. The right side, but only the right side, of her body “started acting crazy. It felt like the nerves were coming out of my skin. It was so painful. My right leg swelled—my ankle would get as wide as my calf—and my skin got incredibly itchy.”

This is unconscionable. In a New Orleans courtroom, lawyers have been arguing for weeks over whether BP committed gross negligence in its handling of the spill. It turns out that gross negligence is not the half of it. BP continues to make billions of dollars every quarter, and we will be relentless in making sure they use its obscene profits to pay their fare share. But three years out, we can see that the damage not just to the Gulf but to the people who live here is in fact incalculable.

Unfortunately, my law firm, which practices environmental law, has had to help the dozens of victims with serious personal injury that we represent. Many firms overwhelmed with the burden of proving up a toxic exposure case are referring more clients to us all the time. This Newsweek article will certainly assist in the personal injury litigation. Many victims who did not opt out are now subject to the class action settlement that significantly  limits the damages they can collect. For example no matter what symptoms or damages you suffered prior to 2012 you are limited to collecting $75,000 for those injuries. This is why we recommended that our clients opt out of the personal injury settlement. If this information is true and BP failed to disclose it, the settlement may be subject to attack.

To read the Newsweek investigation into BP's Corexit coverup, please check out:

To find out more about oil that is still polluting Louisiana wetlands, please read:

© Smith Stag, LLC 2013 – All Rights Reserved

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