Watching the BP oil disaster unfold, lurking in the back of my mind has been a disturbing realization that the American people have few options for trustable protection — from corporations or from our elected government — when it comes to something like health safety after exposure to the toxic mixture of oil, methane and Corexit and its vapors, at sea, in the wetlands or on the beach. When one drills down, as it were, one finds a pervasive disingenuousness that can only be described as, well, Oilwellian.

Who can we trust?

Let’s start with the NYTimes 6-18-10 report that BP’s toxic testing firm, the Center for Toxicology and Environmental Health (CTEH), had a questionable record in prior chemical exposures before it became BP’s main source of testing on health effects after the Mocando blowout disaster:

After a million gallons of oil spilled on a Louisiana town in 2005, after a flood of toxic coal ash smothered central Tennessee in 2008 and after defective Chinese drywall began plaguing Florida homeowners, the same firm [CTEH] was on the scene — saying everything was fine.

One toxicologist told The Times that CTEH’s chemical studies were designed to meet the goals of its clients. "They’re paid to say everything’s OK."

Rep. Lois Capps (D-CA), who represents Santa Barbara (where the major oil spill occurred in 1969 that launched the environmental movement and inspired Earth Day), has recognized the wolf-guarding-henhouse problem and asked President Obama to formally relieve BP from the duty of protecting the health of Gulf workers. She wants lawmakers to get into “areas this company is not going to want to talk about." This includes review of CTEH’s study practices and test findings which are mostly (for now) secret proprietary information belonging to BP (so let’s subpoena them).

The Oil Pollution Act (that came into effect after the Exxon Valdez, the Act that capped liability at $75 million) mandates that the oil company who caused the spill should be responsible for its cleanup. Oddly, it appears this Act has been interpreted to mean that BP should be in full charge of actually doing the cleanup rather than merely paying all the costs of cleanup.

Despite the obvious conflict of interest whereby BP wishes to avoid besmirching its green sunflower brand with the image of respirators, Obama administration has stepped aside and allowed BP to hire cleanup workers and oversee their safety in a propritary manner in BP’s own self-interest and not the public interest, whether safety affects liability or is affected by appearances. BP is trying to slide by the former by displaying the latter. This is the Oilwellian rub.

Appearance is everything in BP’s marketing — especially when it comes to managing the "look" of BP’s oil spills. Even the use of Corexit has (for BP) conveniently allowed oil to be dispersed throughout the water column (forming underwater plumes and dead zones due to oxygen depletion as micro-organisms gradually consume the oil), with the oil surfacing in visible form only belatedly after the initial days and weeks after the blowout and then in sporadic clumps after media cameras have left the scene and attention of the rest of the country has wandered to the next diversion. The oil is now — over 60 days later — beginning to come in on the tide (See the superb recent DK diary of jamess on Corexit)

Unfortunately the Obama administration, by not taking the safety issues of cleanup workers by the horns, is allowing itself to appear complicit with BP, thus dulling the edge of any potential criminal negligence liability case against BP for residual illnesses in cleanup workers down the line.

Riki Ott, famed environmentalist and veteran of the Exxon Valdez spill, has been calling for respirators for those working in the Gulf (see recent DK diary about Riki Ott and The Black Wave). But BP asserts its environmental health testing contractor (CTEH) finds no health effects from toxic mixture of oil, Corexit and methane exposure and thus sees no need for respirators or safety protections for cleanup workers, even prophylactically for prevention of possible illness, “just in case.” No risk is seen by CTEH, just as they found no risks in their prior studies cited by The Times. OSHA made a fuss to BP in late May about all sorts of inadequate safety practices like heat stress, fatigue, insect bites, etc, but never mentioned toxic respiratory exposures and potential need for respirators. Later, OSHA told WSJ (see below), oh by the way, the latter were not a problem. EPA has ordered BP to stop using Corexit — and been given the runaround while BP continues to spew thousands of gallons of Corexit into the Gulf. Per jamess’ DK diary (Update: based on EPA’s own Toxicity Studies for Corexit and oil prior to the current emergency), Corexit’s toxic effects alone (never mind the oil and methane workers are also exposed to) are horrendous.

Regulatory protection hardly inspires confidence when we recall the Bush era EPA’s Christine Todd Whitman, a relative moderate non-ideological Republican, repeatedly assuring 9-11 Ground Zero workers that their unprotected exposure to the toxic pile was “perfectly safe.” Many of those workers became ill, some died, and claims for medical costs came to millions.

As a side note bearing upon the rights of free speech and free press and their absence within the domain of corporate non-democracy, because BP has control over cleanup workers it hires and considers every action of cleanup workers proprietary to the BP Corporation, they have forbidden cleanup workers under threat of firing to speak freely to the press about physical symptoms they might attribute to exposure to oil, oil vapors, Corexit, methane etc. They are threatened with firing if they wish to wear their own respirators. It’s all under absolute secrecy. Thus, even third party professional medical examination, should it present itself, is barred from assessing (or reporting in the case of the press) the risks and effects of exposures among cleanup workers on land and most especially where it is most dangerous, at sea. Why is the Obama administration letting BP do this? Are they afraid of being accused by the right wing of being overbearing to corporations?

Clearly BP should not be doing the cleanup on land or at sea. They should only be paying the costs, while the cleanup operations should ideally be led by an experienced command and control expert like Lt Gen (ret) Russel T. Honore who (finally, after Bush delayed his deployment) organized the Katrina response and who understands how to coordinate communications to organize an effective response to BP’s oil gusher as it spreads into the Gulf and onto the beaches of several states.

OK, you might wonder: What about the government agency responsible for overseeing worker safety – the Occupational Health and Safety Administration (OSHA)? Well, OSHA has said their tests show respirators aren’t required for cleanup workers in the Gulf. OSHA’s head, David Michaels, after sternly chastising BP via Thad Allen in late May about everything under the sun safety-wise except respiratory exposure to toxic oil residuals (presumably also including methane and Corexit) told the Wall Street Journal on June 4 (reporting to an investor readership):

based on test results so far, cleanup workers are receiving “minimal” exposure to airborne toxins. OSHA will require that BP provide certain protective clothing, but not respirators.

Unclear if Michaels was referring to beach cleanup workers or those out on the water or near the oil-and-methane-smoke-filled site of the Mocando blowout. Also unclear is Michaels’ vague wording "based on test results so far . . . "So far" was weeks ago and quantities of oil mixed with toxic Corexit and methane on sea and land are far greater now. Whose test results? Did OSHA do the testing or did BP provide these results via their contracted testing firm CTEH? If OSHA did the testing, the results can easily be obtained by Congress.

If CTEH did the testing upon which Michaels made his reassuring statements to Wall Street investors via WSJ, the NY Times portrayed CTEH on 6-18-10 as follows:

Now that the Center for Toxicology and Environmental Health (CTEH) has a high-profile role in the Gulf spill, local community groups and other chemical testing veterans see a troubling pattern at work. As BP continues to claim that the leaking oil has caused “no significant exposures,” despite the hospitalization of several workers and the sparse release of test data, these observers of CTEH’s work say the firm has a vested interest in finding a clean bill of health to satisfy its corporate employer.

Congress should question CTEH and OSHA’s David Michaels closely under oath on this sequence of events.

Suggestions in summary (when you write to Congress):

1) BP should not be doing the cleanup (or hiring workers and controlling the decision to provide respirators — or not), only paying for it.

2) Place Lt Gen (Ret) Russel T. Honore in overall charge of the oil disaster response for competent command and control, and defense against spread of oil in the Gulf and cleanup once it hits shore.

3) Immediate review of the use (or not) of safety protection (such as respirators) by a disinterested medical and air/water testing team in the Gulf area (not OSHA) to objectively assess medical risks to cleanup workers as well as oil rig personnel, press and others exposed to chemicals, smoke and oil spill residuals.

4) EPA should fine BP a hefty per-day penalty beginning the day it ordered BP to cease use of Corexit several weeks ago. Meanwhile a disinterested panel of medical and non-corporate petroleum professionals (with input from local fishermen and shrimpers) should review the advisability of using any sort of dispersant.

5) Support Congressional hearings on all of the above, including review of CTEH testing practices in the BP case as well as review of the Oil Pollution Act to make clear that public agencies perform the actual physical containment and cleanup of oil on land and sea as these crucial tasks affect public health and the public interest, while the offending oil company pays the bills. Same applies to economic damages, administered by a disinterested party while offending oil company simply pays legit claims (as Obama has finally figured out).

(Cross-posted in ekos on DailyKos)

Comments are closed.