The Story of a Boat Captain who Worked on the BP Spill — Frank M. Howell


Frank M. Howell began working as a boat captain on the BP oil spill in May 2010. 

“We’d have a safety meeting every morning, which was very basic information… It was just more or less: Be safe, don’t get in the water, don’t get the stuff on you.” 

During the long and hot days working on the spill, Frank said the small open boats meant that the crew was often getting sprayed with oil-and-dispersant-contaminated water and mist – smaller droplets that could easily be inhaled. 

It all started with a routine vision test. Frank, who had had 20/20 vision his entire life, suddenly had acute vision problems. 

“That was the first time that I really noticed something [was wrong],” he said. 

In October 2010, Frank was sent to work on the spill in Grand Isle, Louisiana, to replace a captain that had fallen ill during his oil spill work. After a few days on board, Frank learned that the previous captain had died.  By then, Frank had developed a painful chronic cough that would eventually prevent him from sleeping while laying down. 

“There were probably two thousand [spill workers] at Grand Isle and I would say the vast majority were sick. Everybody was hacking and coughing,” he said. 


A photo of Frank from before his work on the spill.



By the end of the month, Frank said his health issues had become so unbearable that he left work to return to his home in Florida. For months he was too sick to see friends, couldn’t keep food down, and was afraid to drive for fear of passing out. 

“Several times I’d wake up on the floor in a puddle of blood,” he said. “I had this overwhelming feeling that I was dying.”

By January 2011, Frank was bedridden, and his regular doctors had not identified the cause of his health issues. In March, Frank went to see a neurologist. He tested positive for toxic exposure — more specifically for Hydrocarbons, which are the chief components of crude oil and dispersants. Exposure to these substances have been found to cause significant health risks.

 “It was about two and a half 

years that I was useless, I wasn’t able to work,” he said.

Today, Frank lives with lingering illnesses from his oil spill exposures thirteen years ago. He has a chronic cough, blood pressure swings and chemical intolerances to the smells of bleach, gasoline and diesel. He also gets chronic headaches, and his vision problems persist. 

Frank is currently suing British Petroleum for dismissing his medical bill claims.