Margaret Ressler’s story: A life changed forever by working in the Exxon Valdez cleanup


Margaret Ressler’s story appeared in my 2008 book titled Amputated Lives: Coping with Chemical Sensitivity

I was the assistant to the head of a crew of about thirty people. I was a medic and was also responsible for lunch. It was up to me to organize everything. Every morning we got on the boat and went to some beach.  We worked twelve-hour shifts, which was really exhausting. In addition to my other duties, I sprayed steam from a steam gun to try to get the oil of the rocks and off the beaches. You could smell oil everywhere. They gave us yellow rain suits to help keep off the water and oil, but they were cheap, so within minutes you were soaked to the skin. I decided to buy myself a good set of rain gear.  

We would try to get down a couple of inches into the sand and gravel with the steam gun so we could move the oil toward the water.  They would have an area boomed off and skimmers to pick up the oil and transfer it into a boat. Afterwards we found that the hot water was killing everything on the beaches.

After spending eight weeks on the cleanup, I developed pneumonia and was sent back to Valdez. Some guy met me at the dock and took me to the emergency room. There they told me to go home and rest. When I went back to file for workers’ compensation, there were armed guards outside the workers’ comp office, which seemed really odd. They were not letting anyone else in. We were told all our medical records had fallen off the boat. I never did get any workers’ comp.

I have fibromyalgia and chronic fatigue syndrome now, and I didn’t have those before I worked on the spill cleanup.  My muscles hurt a lot now, and  I can’t stand for any length of time. I can’t write because I have a palsy in my right hand, and I’ve had a lot of trouble sleeping since I worked on the oil spill.  In July 1990, just a year after I worked on the spill cleanup, my doctor said I was too disabled to work.

I had been a bartender at Eagle River, but I had to quit because I developed chemical sensitivity and reacted to the alcohol fumes, which were pretty strong by the end of the evening. Lots of other chemicals bother me now. I can’t use those pine-scented cleaners anymore, and I’m so sensitive to chemicals now that I can’t get a perm.

I’ve heard of three or four people who died after they worked on the spill. One lady was my roommate.  We have a meeting every March 27 for Task Force 8, kind of like a reunion. I’ve gone to a couple and have heard that so and so died.

Before I worked on the oil spill, I was a very active person.  I was a hard worker, an original farm girl. I raised three children as a single mom and also raised four foster children. I had a full social life as a bartender, but now that I’m sick I live in a chair and my son takes care of me.