Oil spill’s health impacts scrutinized


After focusing for weeks on the causes of the Gulf oil spill and its economic and environmental impact, Congress shifted its attention Thursday to the dangers it poses to human health.

The Senate Health Committee tackled proposals to protect oil industry workers, while the House Energy and Commerce Committee’s Energy panel heard from experts on potential problems associated with exposure to oil, a carcinogen.

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The hearings come as more Gulf Coast residents and cleanup workers have reported getting sick. A recent internal Department of Labor memo describes “significant deficiencies” in BP’s handling of worker safety issues and warns that there has been a “general systemic failure [from BP] to ensure the safety and health” of the responders, according to Rep. Lois Capps (D-Calif.).

“Each day it’s becoming more evident that BP’s oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico is not only an environmental and economic disaster, but a human health crisis as well,” said Capps.

Capps wrote to President Barack Obama this week asking him to “take appropriate and necessary steps to ensure a coordinated approach to protecting the health of workers, volunteers and the public at large [that] must include removing the worker and public health protection functions from BP.”  

Experts testifying before the House panel said the risks include oil vapor inhalation, skin irritation, problems related to exposure to dispersants and seafood contamination. 

“We need to protect [Gulf Coast residents] at all costs and ensure that their health remains a top priority, even after the leak is stopped,” said Rep. Charlie Melancon (D-La.).

The subcommittee chairman, Rep. Edward Markey (D-Mass.), said he’d press for BP to say what’s in its drilling mud so scientists can assess its potential health impact.

In testimony before the Senate panel earlier in the day, an Obama administration official said that the oil industry often ignores federal worker safety laws, exacting “an alarming toll in human life and suffering” among industry workers.

“Time and again, our inspectors are finding the same violations in multiple refineries,” said Jordan Barab, deputy assistant secretary at the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA). The repetition, he added, is a “clear indication” that oil companies are ignoring “essential safety lessons.”

Lawmakers have grown increasingly critical of BP in the wake of the Deepwater Horizon disaster in the Gulf of Mexico. Eleven workers were killed April 20 when the oil rig exploded about 40 miles off the coast of Louisiana. 

While BP’s safety history is now under scrutiny following the disaster, Barab told the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) Committee’s Labor subpanel that the safety troubles are industry-wide. He noted that 58 workers have died in the coal, oil and natural gas industries in the last four months alone.

“The toll of worker deaths and injuries on the job,” he said, “is sounding an alarm about a major problem throughout the energy industries.”

BP declined an invitation from Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.), who heads the Labor subcommittee, to join Thursday’s hearing.

Still, the industry was quick to defend itself from charges that companies ignore safety rules. Charles Drevna, president of the National Petrochemical & Refiners Association (NPRA), a trade group, told lawmakers that the cost of workplace accidents is so high that it simply “makes good business sense” to prioritize workplace safety.

“There is simply no situation where lax safety procedures will create any sort of benefit,” he said.

The NPRA represents BP’s chemical interests but not its refineries, Drevna said.

Asked by Murray if his trade group “stands behind BP,” Drevna said only: “ ‘Stand behind’ is a broad term.”

Murray wasn’t convinced of the industry’s message. “Despite what anyone tries to say, this is not a safe industry,” she said.

Barab used the podium to endorse legislation — the Protect America’s Workers Act — that would hike penalties on companies that violate safety rules; improve whistleblower protections for workers who report safety violations; and expand OSHA’s oversight to include thousands of workers currently not covered by the agency’s protections.

Sponsored by Rep. George Miller (D-Calif.), chairman of the House Education and Labor Committee, the bill would also force oil companies to fix inspector-cited safety hazards before sending workers back on the job — even if the companies appeal those citations. Currently, Barab said, “we can’t, by law, force them to fix the problems … while a contest is going on.”

Barab seemed an odd choice to testify in the wake of the drilling disaster: OSHA doesn’t have jurisdiction over offshore oil rigs. 

That responsibility has been jointly adopted by the Coast Guard and Minerals Management Service (MMS), a branch of the Interior Department. Critics of that arrangement argue that the many other duties of the Coast Guard and MMS distract from their dedication to occupational safety.

Asked Thursday if OSHA would like to assume jurisdiction over offshore rigs, Barab said that no such plan is in the works.

“Nobody’s offered it to us, and we certainly haven’t asked,” he said. “But obviously there’s some restructuring that’s got to be done.”