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Gulf oil spill: Cleanup workers' safety is questioned

June 3, 2010 |  3:57 pm

Oil workers cole
Two congressional Democrats on Thursday called on the Obama administration to ensure that BP is properly protecting workers responding to the spill, citing a memo from a Labor Department official calling attention to a "systematic failure on BP’s part to ensure the safety and health of those responding to this disaster."

"We cannot allow BP’s oil spill to cause any more damage or claim any more lives than it already has," Reps. James L. Oberstar (D-Minn.) and Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.) said in a letter to Labor Secretary Hilda L. Solis and Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Lisa Jackson. They cited a May 25 memo from David Michaels, assistant secretary of Labor for occupational safety and health, to Coast Guard Adm. Thad Allen, the incident commander, expressing "serious concerns" for the safety of workers involved in the spill cleanup.

The problems, Michaels wrote, "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.'' He complained that OSHA had repeatedly asked BP to develop a plan for protecting employees during inclement weather, but had yet to receive one, that the oil company had been slow in reporting sickness among workers, and that heat-related illness remains a serious concern. 

Expressing growing frustration, Michaels wrote that the BP official in charge of worker safety "does not appear to operate with the full support of the company, nor does he seem to have the authority necessary for the job which he has been tasked.''

Workers operating on the spill cleanup have been hospitalized with chest pains, dizziness and headaches after working on boats near areas where oil was burned off the surface of the water and chemical dispersants were sprayed from airplanes.

The Gulf Restoration Network, a coalition of groups in five gulf states, last week demanded that President Obama "order an immediate halt to the use of dispersants, unless and until federal and state natural resource scientists agree on their safety for people, wildlife and habitat." 

The network last week joined the Florida Wildlife Federation and Earthjustice, a San Francisco-based legal group, in filing a Freedom of Information Act request to the federal government to obtain the identities of all the chemical ingredients in dispersants used in the gulf.

"EPA has the authority, although rarely if ever used, to overrule industry's pleas for secrecy to prevent risks to people's health and the environment," said Earthjustice attorney Patti Goldman. "If there ever were a time to use this authority, 800,000 gallons of chemical dispersants poured into the gulf in a little over a month is the time."

Meanwhile, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) asked committee chairmen to send him recommendations by July 4 for legislation that would reduce the risk of another such drilling catastrophe, including "ensuring that oil companies are held accountable for their actions'' and promoting the development of cleaner energy alternatives.

More congressional hearings on the spill are scheduled for next week on local effects of the spill, on wildlife rescue efforts in the gulf, on industry liability to fishing and tourism businesses, on federal efforts to improve the safety of offshore drilling and on research and technology needs for spill cleanup.

--Richard Simon reporting from Washington, and Margot Roosevelt reporting from Los Angeles

 Photo: A BP crew rakes up globs of oil at Elmer's Island, La. Credit: Carolyn Cole/Los Angeles Times
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