Robert Bunker, an Exxon Valdez cleanup worker

 

Robert Bunker’s story appears in my 2008 book Amputated Lives: Coping with Chemical Sensitivity.

 

I worked for years in construction—roads, pipelines, the Alaska Railroad, seasonal work. In the off-season, when I wasn’t working, I worked with churches and nonprofit groups. I wasn’t working in March 1989 because I was waiting for the construction season to start. When the oil spill hit, I went down to Valdez and eventually got hired to do spill work. I worked on a cleanup crew from April to September, and I also went back the second summer. In April 1989, I was one of the first people to hit the dirtiest beaches on Naked Island, which was the island closest to the oil spill. I was right in the thick of it, and it was an ugly mess.  At that time, I was forty-five and my health was good, but it seems like I’ve been sick most of the time since then. I have chronic bronchitis and asthma now, and I didn’t have those before the spill.

Most of the time we washed oil off the rocks with high-pressure hoses. Lots of times we steamed rocks, and the oil and steam mixed together. We didn’t have respirators, so we were breathing this stuff in. All day long we were wallowing in oil.  We were falling down all the time. I screwed up my knees real bad slipping on all those oily rocks, and I still have lots of pain in my knees. It was very bad; the rocks were kind of like bowling balls covered with oil. It was a big slippery mess. After the first few days, I was having nightmares that I was drowning in oil.

I worked one day with a chemical called Inipol. The reason that I didn’t work with Inipol after that first day was that someone would normally come around in the morning and bang on our doors. They missed me that second day, so I got out late that day, which is why I only worked one day with Inipol. I’m glad I didn’t have to work with Inipol more than that one day because they told us that if it got on your skin, it would go in your bloodstream and cause all sorts of problems. That’s why I told my supervisor I didn’t want to work around chemicals. There was no way we could really keep those chemicals off our skin.

At first we worked off Navy ships, but after that we slept on big barges, hundreds of people on a barge. We had to travel up to twenty miles in smaller boats to get to the beaches where we worked. I was just exhausted from the long hours we worked— seven days a week, twelve hours a day, sometimes more. And travel time didn’t count as part of our twelve-hour shift. 

My health problems started after the cleanup. I ignored them for a long time, pretending they didn’t exist, that I was just getting older. I had chronic bronchitis and asthma diagnosed in 1999, eight years after my work on the oil spill, but I started having those conditions shortly after the cleanup. I also started having lots of stiffness and pain in my fingers, my hips, my feet, and my neck as well as in my knees, which I injured falling on the oil-covered rocks during the spill cleanup. My whole digestive tract has given me fits since my oil-spill work, and I feel nauseated almost all the time. I have bloating, stomach cramps, just lots of pain and misery from my stomach.  I have a lot of problem focusing my eyes now, and I often get very tired and lose my coordination and sense of balance. My dad who is eighty-two is in better health; he has more energy than I do now.

I am pretty sensitive to chemicals now, which makes life difficult. I get bad headaches and real shaky when I’m around gasoline or paint fumes or smoke.

I was working on construction up to February 1999 but finally couldn’t do it any longer because my health is so bad at this point.  Now I’m a janitor, so I make a lot less money than I did in construction.  Even though I’m working only twenty-one hours a week, that leaves me completely exhausted. I’m sure the disinfectants and other cleaning products we use aren’t helping my health because I’m so sensitive to chemicals now, but I have to earn a living somehow.