WASHINGTON — Federal regulators complained in a scathing internal memo about "significant deficiencies" in BP's handling of the safety of oil spill workers and asked the Coast Guard to help pressure the company to address a litany of concerns.
The memo, written by a Labor Department official earlier this week and obtained by McClatchy, reveals the Obama administration's growing concerns about potential health and safety problems posed by the oil spill and its inability to force BP to respond to them.
BP said it's deployed 22,000 workers to combat the spill, which experts now estimate has spewed 37 million gallons of crude oil into the Gulf of Mexico. At this point, much of the oil remains offshore.
David Michaels, the assistant secretary of labor for occupational safety and health who wrote the memo, raised the concerns on Tuesday, the day before seven oil spill workers on boats off the coast of Louisiana were hospitalized after they experienced nausea, dizziness and headaches.
Late Friday, the disaster response team sent four more workers to the hospital by helicopter, including two with chest pains.
In his memo to Coast Guard Adm. Thad Allen, Michaels said his agency has witnessed numerous problems at several work sites and staging areas through the Gulf Coast region.
"The organizational systems that BP currently has in place, particularly those related to worker safety and health training, protective equipment, and site monitoring, are not adequate for the current situation or the projected increase in clean-up operations," Michaels said in the memo.
"I want to stress that these are not isolated problems," he continued. "They appear to be indicative of a general systemic failure on BP's part, to ensure the safety and health of those responding to this disaster."
Michaels added that BP "has also not been forthcoming with basic, but critical, safety and health information on injuries and exposures."
Michaels raised the alarm about BP as his own agency was coming under fire for not being aggressive enough in monitoring the company or the contractors who are providing oil spill cleanup training.
Graham MacEwen, a spokesman for BP, maintained that his company is being responsive to any problems as they develop.
"We consider safety a number one priority," he said. "We will continue to try to improve our safety record."
He said that BP also was ensuring that cleanup workers are getting "very rigorous training," adding that he wasn't aware of any systemic problems being raised by the Obama administration.
"Whenever we see any problems, we're moving very quickly to resolve them," he said.
Michaels, however, raised several significant concerns in his memo that he said weren't being addressed, including:
"We strongly suggest that BP place someone in this position who has the authority and the ability to make changes expediently in order to address the safety and health of cleanup workers."
In one incident, he said, six workers on Dauphin Island, Ala., where high temperatures reached into the mid-90s during the past week, experienced heat related illnesses. "An investigation revealed that there was no shade or cool drinks available to the workers that were cleaning the shoreline."
Also, he said, BP didn't stop the work until the workers were overcome.
Michaels said that if BP didn't clean up its act, his agency would need to use its "authority to move into enforcement mode," which could include court action or fines.
Worker safety advocates said the Occupational Safety and Health Administration should be doing more.
Most workers are getting only the minimum hazardous-material training required, which is four hours. That's because OSHA has chosen to apply training standards that date back to soon after the 1989 Exxon Valdez spill in Alaska.
Mark Catlin, a worker safety advocate and expert who worked on the Valdez spill, said the four-hour minimum was recommended by Exxon. Catlin said OSHA had the discretion to require more extensive training, but had chosen not to.
"There's a need for more and better training," he said. "Eleven workers have already died and others were injured from the initial blast. We don't need to have more people hurt or made ill during the cleanup."
OSHA also has been criticized for not pushing BP hard enough to release more extensive worker exposure data.
Little-noticed data posted on BP's website and the Deepwater Horizon site show that 32 air samples taken near workers have indicated the presence of butoxyethanol, a component listed as present in an oil spill dispersant used by BP, known as Corexit. The Environmental Protection Agency considers it toxic.
The BP document said the data demonstrates "that there are no significant exposures occurring." OSHA is monitoring the data and has said the workers haven't been exposed to harmful levels.
While experts agree that the level of exposure is lower than federal safety standards, they say that what little data that has been released provides more questions than answers.
"It's cause for concern, both for workers who are on the vessels as well as near shore," said Joseph T. Hughes Jr., the director of the worker education-training program for the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences. "It's just an indication that we should be cautious in terms of exposure during cleanup."
Jordan Barab, deputy assistant secretary of labor for Occupational Safety and Health, said that OSHA is doing what it can to urge BP to release more data, and so far doesn't think that cleanup workers needed more extensive training.
"From what we know right now about the hazard the workers are facing, we think the four-hour training is adequate," he said. "That being said, we are constantly reassessing what's going on down there."
Scientists said data on illness experienced by oil spill workers are limited.
One small scale study published in 2006 examined the association between the use of protective devices and the frequency of acute health problems experienced by workers who cleaned up a 2002 oil tanker spill off the coast of Spain.
The researchers found that seamen were more likely to become ill than other oil spill workers were. The seamen were likely to receive spotty training and were less likely to use protective equipment such as masks or goggles.
"It was the seamen, who were the poorest informed, who suffered the most toxicological problems (perhaps as a consequence of the scant use of masks) and constituted the subset among whom the information received was the least effective," the researchers said.
The small size of the study, however, limits its comparison to the current spill, experts said.
The Rev. Tyronne Edwards of Plaquemines Parish, La., said that many people in the Gulf region have been left feeling distrustful of the government.
"We can't put our hand on anything that is certain," said Edwards, who heads the Zion Travelers Cooperative Center in Phoenix, La.
His community organization has been helping fishermen — including many Cambodians and Vietnamese with limited English skills — get answers about the health risks of responding to the oil spill. Locals also worry about the effects of dispersants on children who'll be spending more time outside and in the water because they're already out of school for the summer.
"All these federal agencies, they were mirroring what BP was saying," Edwards said of a recent community meeting. "We've got a trust issue going on. We're not going to be comfortable until there are some independent groups monitoring what the federal government is telling us."
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