Phyllis “Dolly” La Joie’s story of her work on the Exxon Valdez cleanup

 

Phyllis “Dolly” La Joie’s story appears in my 2008 book Amputated Lives: Coping with Chemical Sensitivity. The devastation caused to her health by her exposures during the Exxon Valdez cleanup was particularly extreme and has changed her life forever. I will never forget that when I would call her to discuss various elements of the story she had written for my book, I would sometimes have to call back later because she would have a coughing attack that would go on and on. What particularly struck me about Dolly was her cheerful willingness to do all the hardest and especially unpleasant jobs with the feeling that she was doing this for the good of Alaska and her country. Unfortunately, as has been the case in so many other situations covered in my Amputated Lives book, America was not there for Dolly after her health was destroyed through toxic exposures encountered serving her country.

 

When I heard that the Exxon Valdez had run aground on a reef in Prince Williams Sound and that thousands of workers would be needed to help clean up the beaches, I decided to go help. I had spent years in Prince Williams Sound seal hunting in the commercial fishing industry, and I loved the area. I had also worked in Valdez during the construction of the oil pipeline that carried oil down to the terminal camp, where it was loaded onto tankers for shipment. The building I worked in contained blueprints and documents for the maintenance of the pipeline and pumping stations. I was sort of like a librarian and would help engineers find the blueprints they needed. Once in a while we went out with the engineers to be sure they were building things according to specifications, but it was very cold, so we didn’t go with them very often. After the construction of the line, I worked for a while at Prudhoe Bay as an engineering aid. Anyway, I felt guilty that I had helped get the oil from Prudhoe Bay to Valdez, so I thought I should go help clean it up. 

About Memorial Day weekend, I signed up in Anchorage with VECO,  the company Exxon hired  to handle the cleanup. I was told to report around 11 pm, and we all got on buses for the trip to Valdez, which took all night. It was very hard to sleep sitting up, and the drivers played loud music all night. By the time we arrived in Valdez, we were just exhausted.   

When we finally got on the ship to go out to the spill site, it took us over eight hours to get out there because of the rough weather and icebergs. All our living quarters were on barges on the water because there were no clearings on the shores, which were just wild, rocky forested shores. On the long trip out to the Greens Creek barge, the barge where I stayed, we bounced, bounced, bounced on these hard benches, so we couldn’t sleep. 

By the time we arrived, I was absolutely exhausted because I had not had any sleep for two days and a night. But as soon as I got off the boat, they put me to work that night in decontamination. Starting then, I worked a twelve-hour shift every night, seven days a week. We were supposed to occasionally go home for R&R, but we all resisted doing that because the trip back and forth was so long and grueling that it was hardly worth it. To make matters worse, since I worked all night every night, I had to sleep during the day. It wasn’t easy to sleep during the day, however, because there were helicopters landing very frequently right on the roof of our living quarters. Everyone in the government from the EPA to Coast Guard officials to Alaskan officials came out to see the spill. They all came to our barge because we had the only helicopter landing pad on Prince William Sound. Our barge also had a medical facility where the injured were brought. So if you worked the night shift and had to sleep during the day, like I did, it was really hard to sleep with all those helicopters coming and going. 

Anyway, decontamination (decon) was a crucial part of the whole operation because the workers would return from the beaches covered in oil. When they got off the boat that brought them back to the Greens Creek barge, they first stepped onto a big floating platform that was attached to the decon barge, which was in turn attached to the Greens Creek. All the workers who got off the boat that brought them back from working all day on the beaches had to drop everything that was covered with oil onto the decon barge. Even though they had been hosed off a certain amount before they left the beaches, they still had lots of oil left on them. So they dropped their life jackets and rain outfits and gloves and boots on the decon barge, everything except their insulated underwear and their coveralls. Their coveralls were supposed to have stayed clean under their outer rain jackets and pants, but they didn’t.  Even though it was usually cold when the cleanup workers left the Greens Creek barge early in the morning to head for the beach, once they started doing heavy work in the hot sun, they would take off their rain gear, so some of them ended up with oil on their coveralls. Those were washed in a laundromat on the barge. At any rate, we decon workers had the job of cleaning during the night all the oily rain jackets and pants and stuff the workers had removed when they returned from work that day.

One job in decon was to use steam guns to steam the oil off the rubber things like the boots and the hard hats, rain pants, rain jackets, and life jackets—anything that you couldn’t put in the washing machines. We would lay all these things out on this big flat deck and spray the oil off. Sometimes you would get really tired standing and spraying, and sometimes you would get tired bending down to turn over the rain jackets and other things so you could spray the other side.  Sometimes you would get tired of the job of  hanging these things up so they would be dry by morning. Because it was so cold and wet at night, the rain gear and boots had to be dried in these things that were like boxcars that contained blowers and heaters. We took turns doing most of the jobs, and everybody worked together really well.

We were supposed to use goggles because of the oily water that was splashing all around us and the oily steam that filled the air when we were steaming the oil off the rain gear and boots. But the goggles would get steamed up really fast, especially if you were down on the deck turning the rain gear to the other side. After a while, we started realizing that we were getting chemicals steamed into our lungs, and we thought, boy, this isn’t good. In orientation, they had told us about all the chemicals that are found in crude oil. Here we were steaming it and breathing in the oily mist, so we thought we had better take some precautions. We tried respirators for a while, but we couldn’t get enough and ran out in a couple of weeks or so. The suppliers couldn’t keep up with the demand for gloves or respirators.

We washed the oily coveralls and underwear  in a washing machine. We used Tide at first, but then they started sending us some strong solvents to add because it was really hard to get the oil out of everything. They wanted to make sure that not one drop of oil got onto the berthing vessel where we slept, so we used some pretty strong stuff that worked better. It was industrial-strength stuff.  I don’t remember all the names, but one product we used was Simple Green. The laundry room, which held just one washer and dryer, was small, and the vapor made me sick a lot of the time. When you washed the oily clothes and dried them in the dryer, you had oil vapor everywhere, and it was a strong smell. Sometimes I felt like I was drunk and was going to pass out. Then I would have to go outside to get away from the fumes and get some fresh air. Whenever it was really cold, as it often was at night, we would have to keep the laundry room door shut to keep from freezing. Then the fumes were really thick.

We had to wash a lot of loads every night, so we kept the machines going all the time. The beach workers ran out of gloves fast, like right away, because they had each been issued just five pairs. That’s why we started washing the gloves instead of throwing them away, which we had been told to do in orientation. We didn’t have much of a choice because the suppliers couldn’t keep up with our needs. The workers had to have gloves, and we didn’t have any new gloves to give them. A few gloves had separate liners, but most were stiff, heavy, thick, lined gloves, men’s work gloves made out of rubber or plastic.  After we put the gloves through the washer, we had to turn them inside out before we put them in the dryer so that the cloth lining would dry. These You had to put them on your hand so you could turn them inside out and pull the lining out to dry them. Then after they were dry, they had to be turned right-side-out again.

Turning the gloves ended up being my job because no one else would do it. The young girls wouldn’t do it because they were afraid it would break their fingernails and ruin them like mine were from all the solvents and the oil. When you tried to pull out the lining, you could feel it in every tendon of your arm and across your shoulders. It was an excruciating job, but it had to be done because the workers had to have gloves. Anyway, whenever there were gloves to be turned, everyone else disappeared. Sometimes I turned gloves practically the whole night. I have tendonitis now in my hands, wrists, shoulders, in my back. Oh, man, I cried some nights because my hands hurt so bad. One day my hands were so swollen I couldn’t even get dressed or open the door of my unit. The doctor bound my hands to reduce the swelling. I have pictures of that. Fortunately, I was able to go on R&R for a week right after that, which helped my hands.

About this time, I think it was in July, they needed more people for the beach cleanup, so I started working on the beaches. I was eager to get out on the beaches because I thought I would get some fresh air that way by getting away from those fumes in that little laundry room. Besides, my hands couldn’t take the glove turning any longer. I also liked the idea of working during the day so I could sleep at night when the helicopters weren’t landing. 

Well, I didn’t get much fresh air on the beaches after all. The smell on the beaches was awful, like something dead. Crude oil has a sicken-ing odor all its own. It’s horrible. Of course, we found dead things, too, like seals and birds. If we found something dead, we had to call up the Coast Guard and tell them we had found an animal so they could send somebody over to pick it up. We would put the dead seals or birds in plastic bags. It was pretty sickening to have to pick up these animals and birds that had been decomposing for several months.

The whole beach scene was wild, with people jumping from boat to boat and from rocks to the shore, with slippery oil covering everything.  It was just a world of constant falls and slips. It was really hard on our knees and feet. We were given thin rubber deck boots that protected us from the oil but not from injury. This stuff was unbelievable. It was really dangerous and dirty work. They didn’t think a woman should be doing it, especially a small one like me, but I showed them I could do it.  

My first day on the beaches the crew initiated me by turning on full blast this high pressure steam gun that I was holding, and it flipped me over. We sprayed the oil-covered rocks with these steam guns and also with cold water from high pressure hoses. Using these big pressure hoses was hard, hard work because that high pressure is hard to hold down. You couldn’t let go because you could almost kill someone if you did. So you put the hose over your shoulder and put it under your arm to move it because the high pressure made it so hard to control.

We had been told in orientation that whenever we were using the steam guns on oil-covered rocks or were around the oil fumes we should wear a respirator because of the fumes. But when we asked our foreman why we couldn’t get respirators, he said, “Well, you can go home if you don’t want to do it.” He couldn’t get respirators for us, so I usually just wore one of those little paper masks. But of course that paper mask didn’t do much to keep me from breathing in a lot of that oily mist that surrounded us as we sprayed steam on the oily rocks.

The oil was everywhere—it was three feet deep in some places—and it was slippery. You had to crawl in it every time you fell, so you ended up with it all over you. Even though we tried to tape up the gaps between our gloves and our boots and our rain gear, the oil just ate away at the tape and the edges opened up between your gloves and your boots and your rain gear. No matter how tight you sealed yourself up, the oil would still seep in.  In the mornings it was freezing cold, so you’d wear all these clothes, but by noon, it was like being in a sauna. You would start stripping off layers, and sometimes you would end up working in just your life jacket and coveralls and underwear, so all those things would get sprayed with the oily mist that was coming off the rocks as you sprayed them. I got a lot of oil on my skin and on my face. A couple of times I even got oil in my eyes. In orientation they told us we should wear Tyvek suits while we were working around the oil. We were supposed to wear the Tyvek suits every day, but I never saw them on the beaches. 

After I finished working on the oil spill in September of 1989, I spent a little time in Anchorage and then returned to my sister’s home in Hawaii to help her for the winter. I ended up living there for a num-ber of years until I moved to Wisconsin to be closer to my daughter. I didn’t even start looking for a job until January of 1990 because I was so exhausted from all those long hours of work on the oil spill, twelve hours a day, seven days a week for over three months, with only one or two weeks off for R&R. When I did try to work, I would get really tired before the end of a shift, so I tried doing part-time work. At first I tried to work nights at a duty-free shop. Then that summer I worked as a census taker so I could be outside. I kept having colds all the time, just like when I was working on the spill. (It was called the Valdez Crud.) I also started having sinus problems in Hawaii, and that had never happened to me before in that warm, humid climate.

I continued feeling really tired if I worked too long or too hard, but I could handle a job as long as I didn’t have to use my brain. For some reason, I just couldn’t get my brain functioning in the morning. Then in December of 1991, I got very sick with some kind of a sinus infection or something and started running a temperature. I couldn’t get my temperature down. I would stay home and rest and start to feel better so I could go back to work for a day. Then, whammo, I would end up in bed again. I thought I had some kind of horrible flu. Antibiotics were no help, and this went on for months. Finally, I took some time off under temporary disability insurance and discovered I felt better if I didn’t exert myself too often.

During this period, I felt like my head was going to explode. It’s hard to explain, and it didn’t feel quite like a sinus headache. The pressure would just be so bad that I had to crawl to the bathroom. It was excruciating, and this went on for months. My Kaiser doctor said he couldn’t figure out what was wrong. I also started having bad stomach problems in December of 1991—severe nausea in the morning and terrible bloating.

I tried desperately to find some kind of work that I could handle even though I was feeling so awful. For a while, I worked three hours a day as a companion to an elderly doctor with Alzheimer’s. But just getting ready and driving over there and sitting with him, fixing him a sand-wich, and going home would wipe me out for the rest of the day.  Then as his Alzheimer’s progressed, I had to give up that job because I couldn’t work full time like they wanted.  I also worked for some other patients, but eventually I became too ill to even do that, so I went on welfare. I just couldn’t do anything else. 

Eventually, my doctor diagnosed me with diabetes and found that my liver was enlarged. The medication he gave me for the diabetes did help a lot, but I still wasn’t able to function in the morning. To make matters worse, my doctor suggested that I could work full time if I wanted to. When I applied for Social Security disability payments, I was even sent me to a psychiatrist, who told me he thought I was delusional about some of my health problems.

A friend who had worked with me on the oil spill had sent me a newspaper article some time back about cleanup workers getting sick. I didn’t pay any attention to it, however, because we hadn’t been told what symptoms to watch for or anything like that. I had no idea that the health problems I had developed since working on the cleanup could be from the oil exposures. Then one day one of my former co-workers in the oil spill cleanup that I hadn’t talked to in a long time called me to see how I was doing.  I told her that I had been in bed sick for quite a while. She said that they were all getting sick and said I should get  tested for the chemicals we had been exposed to during the cleanup. So I had my blood tested, and the results showed elevated levels of several of those chemicals. My doctor didn’t know anything about chemical poisoning, however. He referred me to an industrial doctor, who also didn’t know much about chemical poisoning. Fortunately, I at last found a physician who was familiar with cases in which people had developed chemical sensitivity.

When my health started really going downhill in December of 1991,  I developed a lot of other problems. I have hardly any hair left. On my back I’ve got these odd things that are like big brown moles. Some are constant, and some come and go. My doctor doesn’t know what they are. My fingernails are rotting off. I used to have an excellent memory, but that’s no longer true. I can’t remember the names of a lot of the people that I worked with cleaning up the spill, and I thought I would never forget them. I can’t do math anymore, and I used to be a math whiz. 

Sometimes I just completely lose feeling and drop things. Not too long ago I tried to lift a black iron skillet. Nothing happened.  If I write too much or if I lift heavy things, I get stiffness and tingling in my hands. If I get overtired,  I ache all over, and sometimes I have trouble getting up out of a chair. I should never have held those high pressure hoses all day long during the cleanup.

Various chemical exposures bother me since I got sick after working on the oil spill. Traffic exhaust gives me a headache and makes me nauseated.  Cigarette smoke and certain cleaning products and perfumes make me choke and cough, give me a headache, and make me sick to my stomach. One day when I walked by a shop that sells thongs and rubber slippers, like everyone wears in Hawaii, the rubber smell made me throw up.

I’ve been diagnosed with COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease), gallstones, and severe anemia. Now I also have asthma, and sometimes I cough so much that I can hardly talk. Recently I’ve been bothered a lot by vertigo, so I had an MRI. It didn’t explain the vertigo, but it did show that I have an aneurism in my brain.

Helping to clean up the oil spill seemed like the right thing to do in 1989, but now that my cleanup work has ruined my health, I wish I had stayed in Hawaii instead of returning to Alaska.