The Potter Brothers, Exxon Valdez Cleanup Workers

 

The story of the three Potter brothers appears in my 2008 book Amputated Lives: Coping with Chemical Sensitivity, which is available on my website, in the “Other Interests” tab above, and on Kindle.

 

The Potter brothers all worked together to clean up the oil-soaked beaches of Prince William Sound, with quite different effects upon their health.

 

Roger Potter

I heard about the oil spill on the radio at 5 or 6 A.M. on the morning it occurred. My brothers and I thought right away that there might be a job opportunity here. We were union members and hadn’t had much work since we had helped build the pipeline up at Prudhoe Bay. After the pipeline was built, the company preferred to hire non-union labor. We had been hunting around for work for years, doing what we could to keep body and soul together. We even cut wood for two years. Our union scale pay for construction work was $23 or $24 an hour, but we were offered only about $17 an hour on the oil spill cleanup. At least we knew we would get lots of overtime; one week I worked 109 hours.

We got our dispatches to report to work on May 5, so we drove down to Valdez, where there was still four feet of snow on the ground. After we arrived, we were sent to an indoctrination session at the Civic Center. There the speakers told us they were unsure what the effect of the 180-odd compounds in the oil would be because they had not all been tested. They said most of the stuff had no Material Safety Data Sheets to let us know how the chemicals might affect us. They told us it was kind of a crap shoot what the long-term or short-term effects would be. A lot of us were looking at each other when we heard that.  As I recall, it was just one three- or four-hour session that we had to attend before we started working on the oil-spill cleanup.

My brothers and I were assigned to a berthing vessel called the Fort McHenry, where we lived with twenty to thirty people. The ship would moor close to various beaches that we were to clean, and we would go ashore during the day and return to the ship at night. During the first week or so, we had to go down into the bowels of the ship every morning where the landing boats were floating. When they started the diesel engines on all the landing craft, the air would be full of diesel exhaust from all those two-cycle engines. The procedure was to sink the stern of the ship until the landing craft could float out. Fortunately, after that first week or so, we started using a barge to get to the beaches. 

During the first week, we spent most of our time sopping up oil with pompoms, but that wasn’t very efficient. Then we got pumps that we carried to the beaches on our landing craft, along with other equipment we needed. When we hit a beach, we would string out the hose and pump water to the top of the beach to try to wash the oil down into the bay, where it would be collected by booms.  Skimming boats would then pick up that oil. We used both hot and cold water on the beaches.  Sometimes we even used steam generators to make steam for steam wands in an attempt to melt the oil off the rocks. 

We wore gloves and tied our rain pants and jackets shut over our boots and wrists. Sometimes we wore plastic face shields, but it wasn’t always practical to do that. If it was a cold day when we were using the steam wands to try to steam the oil off some of the rocky cliffs, our face shields would fog up. When that happened, we would just have to take them off so that we wouldn’t risk falling off a cliff because we couldn’t see. And, of course, without those face shields, we had to breathe even more of the oily fumes and our faces got splattered with oil. 

We fell down quite a lot when we were working. At Green Island, the beach was covered with a mousse-like substance made up of oil and rotting seaweed. That was especially slippery, so you had to walk really carefully.

One of the things some of us tried at Green Island was to use high- pressure hoses to boil up the sand and gravel down deep to get out the oil that had sunk into the sand. We were getting out a lot more oil that way, so the skimmers had to come to our end of the beach more often.  When the foreman realized what we were doing, he told us not to do that anymore because they just wanted to get the surface oil.  

As soon as we started working on the spill cleanup, we all came down with a cough. We were given cough medicine, but it didn’t help.  We coughed all summer long because of the oil vapors.  We could feel the congestion in our lungs. At other times in the past, I had worked around asphalt, applying heated grease and slapping on heavy grease, but that had never bothered me or made me cough the way this oil spill did.

During the first couple of months while I was working on the oil spell, I would get brown blisters on my lower legs that would pop and ooze a brown liquid, but those blisters disappeared by November. I was luckier than most people who worked on the oil spill because the exposures don’t seem to have affected my health in a lasting way like they did the health of my two brothers.

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Mike Potter

The union had negotiated our wages; we usually get extra around hazardous materials, but we didn’t in this case. At least we got a lot of hours—seventeen-hour days a few times.

We felt nauseated all the time we were working out there on the beaches, and headaches were rampant. I think Exxon knew more about what warm weather spills did to people than what cold ones did. Then in addition to all the oil we were exposed to, there were a bunch of chemicals that we used. We would request and request that we be given the hazardous chemical plat that was supposed to be on top of the containers of chemicals, but we never could find out what ingredients were in the containers. We didn’t have anything other than a name on the container. We nicknamed one of the chemicals we used Agent Orange. One of the things it was used for was to wash the oil off the boats and skiffs. That chemical was eating the membranes in people’s noses. On our second or third R&R, word was getting out that if you were asked to work around this chemical, you should refuse to do it.  That’s why we wanted to get information about the chemicals we were using. Exxon knew a lot more than they wanted to tell us.

I started having some fairly serious memory loss problems a few years after the spill, even though I was only in my thirties. People would say, “Mike, how are you doing?” and I wouldn’t recognize them. I used to know the phone numbers of people I call a lot. Now I have to look them up.

I developed some growths that looked like a huge wart. They were 3/4″ thick and about the size of a silver dollar. Those big wart-like growths appeared about three years after I had worked on the oil-spill cleanup. A lot of my ailments started around 1993, about four years after the spill. That was when I started having some black-out spells and getting serious fatigue. We had signed an agreement that Exxon had the right to check our medical signs for thirty years. Doctors took blood and also did a urinalysis from time to time, but they never referred me to other doctors for any of my problems.

I was able to keep working fairly steadily until 2001, but then I had to shift to lighter work than construction because of my fatigue. I worked mainly as a mechanic, and some of the cleaning solvents I had to use made my arthritis a little worse. When I’m around chemicals, I have a lot more pain. I had to take early retirement at age forty-eight and get Social Security Disability Insurance. 

*        *        *        *        *

Paul Potter, Deceased

Mike: I was on the same beach as my brother Paul where we were picking up debris like dead, oil-soaked wildlife that gave off a terrible rotten stench. We put this stuff in plastic bags to be picked up by a little barge, and these bags were sitting on the beaches in the hot sun.  Usually the tops were twisted, but when Paul picked up this one bag, the top swirled open and gases poured out onto his face. He staggered around and said he couldn’t see, so some guys had to grab him. They sent him to Anchorage on a helicopter, and he spent several days in a hospital there. The exposure kind of paralyzed his breathing. He got some of the stuff in one of his eyes and almost lost it; he was actually blind for a while. From that time on he always had white stuff in his tear duct. After that incident, almost any chemical would make Paul feel nauseated.                                                                            

Teri, Paul’s widow: After Paul finished working on the oil spill cleanup, he went back to doing carpentry work and building houses, but products he had used forever started bothering him. He even had a violent reaction to the gout medicine that he had taken off and on for many years. There were at least four times that he had to get medical attention because of exposure to something toxic. One time when he was putting a sealant on a deck, he got really sick and dizzy, so they had to take him to a clinic. They called a poison hot line and hooked him up to IVs to get him stabilized. Sometimes he would have a milder reaction, but he would still end up stuck in bed for a couple of days with a violent headache, feeling yucky and kind of weak. He would react to almost anything that was petroleum-based. Once when we were painting an apartment and using an oil-based primer on the walls, he almost passed out into the tray of paint. He had never reacted to things like that before the Exxon Valdez cleanup. He had built things off and on all his life.

Paul also had trouble with lung infections after he worked on the oil spill. He blamed his ill health on the spill cleanup work he had done.

At the time Paul died, the two of us were working as caretakers for an apartment complex.  The week before he died he told me that the gas fumes from the snow blower were starting to make him sick.  After that, I tried to get him to let me do all the snow blowing around the apartments. It was the man-thing though–he wouldn’t let me do it. It was only a half hour after he came in from snow blowing one day that he had a massive heart attack. He died in the ambulance on the way to the hospital. His doctor said that the snow blower gas fumes were most likely what had killed him. Paul was only forty-four when he died.