“This is the best-hidden secret perhaps in the history of our nation.”
by Alex Woodward
Dr. Mike Robichaux speaks into a microphone while standing on a truck bed in the shade of a massive tree in his yard in Raceland, La. He’s wearing a blue polo shirt and jeans, and his white-gray hair is parted neatly. The former state senator, known affectionately as Dr. Mike, is an ear, nose and throat specialist in Lafourche Parish and self-described “too easygoing of a guy.” But today, he’s pissed.
“Nobody is fussing about this,” he says.
Robichaux invited his patients and dozens of others to speak about their situations. Outside of neighborhood papers with names like the Houma Courier, the Daily Comet and Tri-Parish Times, their stories exist solely on blogs and Facebook — unless you visit Al Jazeera English, or sources in Germany, Belgium and elsewhere in Europe.
A Swiss TV crew asks me why U.S. media aren’t talking about this. It’s a good question.
In the wake of the BP oil disaster, thousands of Gulf cleanup workers and residents have reported illnesses, with symptoms as tame as headaches or as violent as bloody stools and seizures. Nonprofit groups and teams of scientists are looking for answers using blood tests, surveys, maps, and soil and seafood samples.
The Louisiana Bucket Brigade (LABB), a nonprofit environmental group, recently completed its survey of coastal Louisiana residents and found a dire need for medical attention. The National Institutes of Health (NIH) began its “Gulf Long-Term Follow-Up Study for Oil Spill Clean-Up Workers and Volunteers” (GuLF Study) to follow the health of 55,000 cleanup crew members over 10 years. It’s the largest study to monitor the disaster, but it won’t be treating its participants. GuLF Study leader Dr. Dale Sandler says the illnesses “need to be taken seriously.”
“People are sick,” she says.
So where is the help?
‘Driving me crazy’
Behind Robichaux, cars line a gravel drive along the bayou. Guests pull up chairs around the truck bed, cameras are rolling, and members of the media outweigh the guests 10-to-1. A year after the April 20, 2010 wellhead explosion at the Deepwater Horizon rig that killed 11 workers, spewed millions of gallons of oil into the Gulf for more than 100 days, and closed fisheries and businesses along the Gulf Coast, some people are finally listening.
“We wanted to be proactive and go out there and get it cleaned up as fast as we can, and do whatever it takes,” remembers charter boat captain Louis Bayhi, who worked for BP in the early days of the disaster. When his crew made it to shore, he went through a triage tent where doctors asked how he was feeling — but his complaints of headaches were brushed off as seasickness, he says.
Months later, Bayhi still hasn’t been paid the $255,000 he says he’s owed for his work in Vessels of Opportunity, a BP-administered program wherein private boat-owners assisted with cleanup efforts. He’s visited hospitals for severe abdominal pains, but he doesn’t have health insurance, and no insurance provider will take him on, he says. He lost his home, and he and his family — his wife and his 2- and 3-year-old daughters — now live with his wife’s grandmother. The family visited Grand Isle beaches in August, where his kids swam in the water and played in the sand.
“My little girls now have more toxins in their blood than I have. That hurts more. I blame myself,” he says, fighting back tears. “I let them go and swim and play in the beach, but at the same time those sons of bitches said it was safe.”
Bayhi’s story is not uncommon for many living on the Gulf Coast.
One of the first “whistleblowers” in south Louisiana, Kindra Arnesen, a fisherman’s wife in Plaquemines Parish, became a public face of mysterious diagnoses and chemical exposure symptoms last summer. Others have come forward, like 22-year-old Paul Doom from Navarre, Fla., who says he swam in the Gulf last summer and now experiences daily seizures and is in a wheelchair following a stroke — with hundreds of doctors he has seen unable to explain why.
Clayton Matherne is a former professional wrestler of 15 years, and at 295 pounds, he looks it. Yet Robichaux says, “When I first met him, he was dying. Literally dying.”
Matherne was an engineer on a support boat near the Deepwater rig when it exploded, and says crews sprayed dispersants directly on top of him. Matherne wasn’t provided a respirator. Since May 30, 2010, he’s suffered paralysis, impaired vision and severe headaches, and he frequently coughs up blood.
“I don’t know why things are happening like this,” he says through tears in a YouTube video dated March 25. “But it seems to get worse and worse every day. … It’s driving me crazy. … I laid in bed last night and prayed that God would just let me die, you know. I’m tired of suffering, you know. I’m tired of watching my family suffer.”
Matherne’s wife Becky says her parents are supporting the family, now that they’ve lost their house. She says she and her husband have been approved for a home through the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.