By John DeSantis
Senior Staff Writer
Published: Sunday, September 19, 2010 at 6:01 a.m.
BAYOU BLUE — Eli Haydell has an X-Box to play with and a television to watch, along with games and toys. What the 5-year-old likes doing most, however, is playing with his grandmother’s fiancé, with whom he’s forged a strong bond.
“I miss playing with my Paw-Paw, and I want him to get better,” Eli said while watching Clayton Matherne inhale medication through a nebulizer. “At night, when he lays down, he cannot breathe. I don’t want to go to school because I’m scared what’s going to happen to my Paw-Paw.”
When he started working on a crewboat for Guilbeau Marine in May cleaning up the Deepwater Horizon spill site, the 35-year-old Pierre Part native said, he became gravely ill. He can no longer work, medical bills and household expenses ate up a piddling settlement, and promised help from Kenneth Feinberg’s Gulf Coast Claims Facility has yet to materialize.
Matherne now begins each day afraid of the future and wondering how much of one he has.
‘They fall through the cracks’
Such a swift and violent reaction to benzene exposure, attorneys and medical workers said during interviews, is rare but not unheard of, particularly if there is some unknown sensitivity or underlying condition.
They said Matherne’s plight raises disturbing questions about what the future holds for oil-spill workers who might have been sickened but don’t know it or who might develop exposure-related illnesses later.
Plans are under development to monitor the long-term health of spill workers, but no provisions so far have been made for meeting costs of doctors and medicines if they are needed once deadlines for claims and lawsuits have passed.
“You get a good whiff of some of these chemicals, and it can cause acute immediate symptoms, and more often than not it usually goes away,” said Houma attorney Duke Williams, who has lectured extensively on oil-and-gas industry and maritime litigation. “But no one fully knows what we are dealing with out there. On the back deck of a vessel it’s hot, you’re dragging boom, condensing this stuff, the wind is blowing up over the vessel, and human beings react to things differently. They are acutely affected, they go to the emergency room and are sent home, and these are pretty tough people. They think it’s a cold or the flu, and they fall through the cracks.”
By the time illness manifests, victims without work or medical insurance might be past claims deadlines or may have already taken quick, inadequate settlements, Williams said.
Matherne’s history reflects the scenario.
A quick check
After becoming ill at sea, he was treated at an emergency room, returned to work and then, according to medical records provided by Matherne, became ill once again. The diagnosis was “reactive airway disease secondary to chemical exposure.”
A letter to Guilbeau from Matherne’s attorneys, Lambert & Nelson of New Orleans, states that “aboard the Noonie G performing skimming operations in the heavily oiled waters of the Gulf of Mexico, … Mr. Matherne was exposed to benzene and other hazardous chemicals that have now rendered him disabled.”
Matherne was declared unfit to work and given a list of medications doctors said he would need to survive.
He said the lawyers advised him to take a quick settlement of $21,000, of which the attorneys received nearly half for their services. With medical bills and medicines to pay for, along with normal living expenses, the money didn’t last.
“I’m afraid to fall asleep and scared not to wake up and afraid each breath I take could be my last,” said Matherne, whose fiancée, Becky Landry, now helps him bathe and dress. Friends, relatives and Catholic Charities in Houma have all pitched in to help. While he is grateful for the assistance, the damage to his pride takes its toll as well. “It just makes me want to crawl in a hole and never come out.”
Matherne received some media attention when he appeared Monday at a town-hall meeting in Houma convened by Feinberg, at which he begged through tears for rapid financial relief.
Workers who cleaned up the 1989 Exxon Valdez spill have told stories throughout the BP cleanup about illnesses they said they developed. Then, as now, government agencies and the oil company said levels of benzene and other chemicals were below the threshold that causes illnesses. Others have advocated for better protective gear for Gulf cleanup workers.
Protective gear, Matherne said, was not made available for ordinary seamen on the Noonie G or the other Guilbeau vessel he worked on, the Cyrus Anthony, back in May. Fumes, he said, passed routinely through the air vents on the vessels.
Anthony Guilbeau, the company’s owner, refused to comment.
Louisiana Department of Health and Hospitals records show 318 reports of health complaints from workers relative to the BP spill. Patients reported headaches, dizziness, nausea, vomiting, weakness and fatigue and upper-respiratory irritation, all symptoms included in Matherne’s most-recent medical records.
The state data include 160 workers with heat-related complaints. A total of 18 workers had short hospitalizations.
Louisiana has monitored initial information on exposure cases and has worked with the federal Occupational Health and Safety Administration and other agencies to ensure that safety guidelines are in place and are followed.
But while the state plans long-term monitoring of effects from the spill on seafood, there are no such plans in place concerning workers.
“The state already has the expertise and jurisdiction and regulatory responsibility for seafood testing but does not have the capacity nor expertise for multi-decade, long-term, physical, human-health studies,” said DHH spokeswoman Lisa Faust.
The task of long-term tracking will lie with federal agencies that have already begun developing protocols and programs.
The federal Centers for Disease Control, the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, National Institutes for Health, National Institute of Occupational Health and Safety and OSHA are some of the agencies involved. BP is funding a 10-year, $500 million research program, coordinated by the NIH, concerning health issues relating to the spill.
A report released last month by the Institute of Medicine, a nonprofit, independent group affiliated with the National Academy of Sciences, lays the groundwork for a program that seeks to understand “potential acute and long-term health impacts of exposures to oil, dispersed oil and dispersants.”
Bob Dudley, CEO of BP’s Gulf Coast Restoration Organization, said the company supplied personal protective equipment and monitored workers during the cleanup.
“But there is much still to be learned from this incident,” Dudley said, “and BP is providing this funding to NIH because it is well-positioned to assure the quality and the integrity of the independent research process.”
Asked if there are plans to aid workers studied who turn up sick in the future — past the time when claims with the Feinberg fund can be filed, for example — NIH spokeswoman Christine Flowers said “certainly that goes beyond the bounds of the study.”
Williams said it is not unheard of for courts to order contingency funds for later illnesses, though he is not aware of any current court action toward that end.
BP spokesman Daren Beaudo said Friday that there is no specific plan for addressing longer-term illnesses that might arise in the future but gave indications that the company-funded study provides an open door.
“What we want to do is discover if there were health impacts, and then it would seem that from that, a course of action would come,” he said. “Whether that includes direct medical coverage and payment or includes something else, I don’t know.”
What might be done for workers found ill in the future is a difficult concept for Clayton Matherne to appreciate given the immediate needs he says are not being met.
“With me not having an attorney and being sick as I am, you would think I’d be the first one you’d want to take care of. It’s ridiculous,” said Matherne, whose desperation is morphing to bitterness and who has little, if any, faith left in anyone. “The president, he talks about doing everything he can. Well, he’s a liar just like BP.”
Senior Staff Writer John DeSantis can be reached at 850-1150 or email@example.com.
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