During the Deepwater Horizon disaster three years ago, few people got as close to the action as Scott Porter.
Porter, a diver with a degree in marine biology, worked in Louisiana as a contractor for oil companies and had become fascinated with the corals growing on oil rigs. He and some friends volunteered to collect samples of corals near the spill for federal officials. They were also paid to take reporters from CBS News and other outlets into the Gulf of Mexico to view the spreading slick.
Federal officials "kept telling us it was safe," Porter said. So he and the other divers he worked with relied on that advice and kept plunging into the gulf.
At the time, Porter was a fit, healthy guy, just 42, who had performed 6,000 dives. He competed in martial arts tournaments. He didn't expect to get sick. But soon after swimming through murky water full of oil and chemical dispersants, he said, he began suffering from a variety of ailments — a burning sensation in his chest, migraine headaches, skin rashes, nausea.
Porter says he is still dealing with some of those symptoms today, as are other divers who came into contact with the mixture of oil and chemical dispersants during the 2010 disaster.
"I was disoriented a lot of the time. I was dizzy a lot, and feeling sick," said Dale Englehardt, another Louisiana diver. "Now the bottoms of my feet have blisters. They pop and go away, but then they come back, and now they're on my chest and back, too."
Other divers knew to avoid going near the oil spill. Paul Sammarco of the Louisiana Universities Marine Consortium, said he was told by university diving experts not to allow anyone to dive who wasn't wearing a special hazardous materials suit.
Documents show the federal agency Porter was dealing with, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, wouldn't even send its own divers out. Internal emails obtained by a watchdog group, the Government Accountability Project, show NOAA's divers lacked protective gear.
"Diving in water contaminated with crude oil requires specialized training, equipment and diving protocols," the head of the NOAA diving program warned in May 2010. "Please do not risk your health by attempting to dive in these contaminated waters."
A NOAA spokeswoman said she could not answer any questions regarding Porter and the other divers, including any advice they may have been given by the agency or the fate of any of the samples they collected, because of the ongoing BP criminal trial in New Orleans federal court.
The disaster began with a fiery explosion aboard an offshore drilling rig on April 20, 2010. Two days later, oil started spewing from the damaged wellhead 5,000 feet below the surface. For months, BP struggled to stanch the flow. It also sprayed record amounts of a dispersant called Corexit on it to try to keep it from reaching environmentally sensitive shorelines.
"Use of dispersants during the Deepwater Horizon oil spill response was coordinated with and approved by federal agencies," BP spokesman Jason Ryan said. "Based on extensive monitoring conducted by BP and the federal agencies, BP is not aware of any data showing worker or public exposures to dispersants at levels that would pose a health or safety concern."
Porter and some friends had been studying the corals that grow on oil rigs in the gulf and had just gotten a federal grant for their work, he said. After the oil had begun flowing from the Deepwater Horizon rig, he said, he wanted to find out if it was affecting the corals and went out to collect a few.
At the time, he had no worries about the safety of diving within 30 miles of the spill source. In May, Porter and his colleagues took Jeff Corwin out to film a story for CBS News, he said, and found "a cloud of micro-droplets of dispersed oil 10 feet thick from the surface." By June, they were seeing 6-foot-long "mucus-like strands of what appeared to be oil that was not completely dispersed."
That dive, which took Porter to 80 feet, was the first one where afterward he felt ill — his chest burned, his head pounded, he couldn't stray far from a restroom. Yet when he brought in samples to NOAA officials and asked them about the rashes breaking out on his body, they told him no one else was reporting a similar problem.
By June, he'd switched from a wet suit, which left plenty of skin exposed, to a dry suit, which keeps a diver well insulated from the water and has vulcanized rubber at the joints. His friends, who felt fine, mocked him at first for the switch. But after a few more dives they began getting sick, too, he said.
"It was crazy, the stuff that was happening," he said.
He never did hear back from NOAA about the coral samples his group turned in, he said. Meanwhile, in August he took a local Fox television crew out. Fifteen minutes after surfacing, Porter was vomiting over the side — an event a friend filmed and posted on YouTube to warn other divers.
Porter decided to stop diving until the gulf was cleaner. One thing that convinced him: the effect on his suit. His breathing regulator got clogged and the vulcanized rubber on the joints "basically disintegrated," he said. Porter is suing BP — but only for the damage to his equipment.
Meanwhile, Englehardt was diving in much shallower water, but experiencing similar problems. The company he worked for sent him into Louisiana's Barataria Bay, where the oil washed ashore for months, to close off the valves on a barge. After he got sick, he moved to Hawaii.
The National Institutes of Health has signed up 33,000 people across the Gulf Coast to follow them for 10 years and see if the oil or dispersant made them ill. Porter and his fellow divers have refused to participate because the study is just a study, period. As his fellow diver Steve Kolian put it, "They just want to watch us die."
Researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report. Craig Pittman can be reached at [email protected]