When the Deepwater Horizon exploded two years ago, spilling an unprecedented amount of oil into the Gulf, BP hired about 48,000 workers to clean up. Some of those workers have since reported health problems. There's just one clinic in Louisiana now dedicated to treating them. As WRKF's Tegan Wendland reports, the clinic has a rather controversial backer.
After spending weeks cleaning up oil on the Louisiana shoreline Joe Williams didn't feel very well.
"I used to have headaches and stomachaches and stuff like that - just tired, lack of energy big-time," says Williams.
Once he even blacked out and totaled his car.
Marylee Orr, director of the Louisiana Environmental Action Network, says her organization got hundreds of calls from cleanup workers like Williams complaining of health problems, which they suspect are connected to exposure to the oil and dispersant.
"I mean call, after call, after call, and these people were desperate," says Orr.
Orr had already enlisted Dr. Mike Robichaux, an ear, nose and throat, specialist and former state senator, to test cleanup workers' blood for heavy metals. They wanted to do more, but didn't know how, until Orr received a call from Jim Woodworth, a leader with the Church of Scientology.
Now President of the Gulf Coast Detoxification Program, Woodworth brought in $1 million in private donations to open a detoxification clinic for cleanup workers in Dr. Robichaux's childhood home in Raceland last year. But his church's role is controversial.
Critics have alternately labeled Scientology a fake religion or sham. But Woodworth deflects the skepticism.
"I've been doing detoxification for 22 years. I had a facility in New York city where we treated over a thousand 9/11 police officers, firefighters, iron workers, people at ground zero that became sick from chemical exposure from the dust and the smoke," says Woodworth.
But there was much fallout over that clinic, Downtown Medical, when its ties to Scientology were revealed. Though the clinic served many New York City firefighters, the firefighter's union denies any endorsement.
Woodworth defends the church's involvement with the clinics in New York and Louisiana, where the patients are treated using a regimen developed by L. Ron Hubbard, the science fiction writer who founded Scientology.
"I'm very proud of what we do and L. Ron Hubbard is the author and humanitarian who developed the process," Woodworth says. "It took him 27 years and physicians, like Dr. Robichaux, who I believe is a Christian, have used this process with great results."
Robichaux, the lead practitioner at the Raceland clinic, says Hubbard's method is similar to other detox methods used at a few clinics along the Gulf. But the Raceland clinic is the only one dedicated to treating cleanup workers for free.
Robichaux describes what the regimen entails for a typical patient. "He'll exercise for 25 or 30 minutes, then take some niacin, which helps to dilate his blood vessels, and it's lipolytic, it breaks down the fatty acids in the body and strips some of the toxins off the fats that they've attached to. Then they go into the sauna and they sweat and they sweat and they sweat."
Jorey Danos was "Patient Number One" at the Raceland clinic. He worked eight miles from the spill for three months for BP's "Vessels of Opportunity" cleanup operation. He says the dispersant BP used to break up the oil, Corexit, was sprayed from a plane just above his ship. He blames the dispersant for severe weight loss, chronic hallucinations, and skin rashes and says it made him so ill he couldn't walk without using a cane.
Now his skin is clear, and Danos says his energy level is high, "When I first got sick it was hell. I was like a dead man walking. Look at me now!"
But Louisiana State University professor, Vincent Wilson, who specializes in coastal studies, says that's probably not because the method cleansed him of toxins he was exposed to cleaning up the spill.
"If you're exercising, cleaning yourself normally and taking these vitamins and eating a good diet, that doesn't sound bad at all. It'd be good for you in the long run. Is it really going clean out things? Not so much," says Wilson.
Wilson says it's possible that many who worked the spill suffered health problems like the ones Danos describes right after being exposed to benzene and the dispersant, but not now, two years later. He says they do have a higher chance of getting cancer later in life, but the body will naturally metabolize most of the substances they were exposed to over time.
"I just hate the idea that large amounts of it, or any claim that large amounts of it are coming out quickly," Wilson says.
But Scientologist Woodworth says the program has changed the lives of every client they've seen, about 60 so far. And demand IS growing by word of mouth.
"Just in the last few weeks we've had 400 people referred to us," says Woodworth.
While the federal Department of Health and Human Services has set up a helpline to council people who cleaned up the BP spill, Danos says other than the Raceland clinic.
"There is no place from here to the Florida panhandle," Danos says. "There's nothing, no clinic, no nothing for people suffering from the effects of the BP spill!"
Woodworth says they're competing for BP money to fund the Raceland clinic and similar projects in at least three other coastal communities.