Research support for this article was provided by The Investigative Fund at The Nation Institute and the Puffin Foundation. Additional research by Lindsey Ingraham and Amit Shrivastava.
**Editor’s note: The original story incorrectly stated that Keith Langner went to the emergency room in January 2010—before the BP oil spill. His visit was in January 2011.
On March 3 Nicole Maurer learned of the proposed settlement between BP and hundreds of thousands of Gulf Coast businesses and residents harmed by its 2010 oil spill, the largest in US history.
In her cramped but immaculate trailer on a muddy back road in the small town of Buras, Louisiana, Nicole tells me that the two years since the tragedy began on April 20, 2010, have been “a total nightmare” for her family. Not only has her husband William’s fishing income all but vanished along with the shrimp he used to catch but the entire family is plagued by persistent health problems.
For months following the onset of the disaster, she says, there was an oil smell outside their home and “a constant cloudiness, like a haze, but it wasn’t fog.” Her 6-year-old daughter Brooklyn’s asthma got worse, and she now has constant upper respiratory infections. “Once it goes away, it comes right back,” Nicole explains.
Before the spill, Elizabeth, 9, was her “well kid.” But now Elizabeth constantly suffers from rashes, allergies, inflamed sinuses, sore throat and an upset stomach.
Nicole stares at me and catches her breath; she apologizes for the tears that flow down her face. “It’s a touchy subject,” she says. “They are just tired. Tired of being sick.”
William worked from June to October 2010 as part of the Vessels of Opportunity program that paid the fishermen BP put out of business to use their boats to clean up its oil. William transported giant bags, called bladders, used to collect oil, to the shore. When he came home at night, says Nicole, his clothes “smelled oily.” Not only were his clothes blackened; so was William.
William’s symptoms began with coughing, then headaches and skin rashes, followed by vomiting and diarrhea. About three to six months later, he started bleeding from his ears and nose and suffering from a heavy cough.
“I ain’t got no money for a doctor,” William quietly tells me, staring down at his hands in his lap. Medicaid covers the kids, but Nicole and William do not have health insurance. “We didn’t know we were gonna get sick. Now I get sick, I stay sick. I don’t sleep. I stay stressed out more than anything. I got bags under my eyes I never had before. I just don’t know if I wanna show people who I am.”
Nicole is fairly confident that the settlement is not going to bring justice. So she wants just one thing: enough money to get her entire family out of the Gulf Coast for good.