by Elizabeth Grossman
In mid-June, while reporting from the Gulf Coast, I asked the Deepwater Horizon Incident’s Joint Information Center (JIC) who the federal on-scene coordinator had appointed to serve as site safety officer, and for a copy of the Regional Contingency Plan’s health and safety plan. Both are requirements under the National Contingency Plan – developed in the wake of the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill – that establishes the framework for the emergency response to an oil spill.
Neither the first Coast Guard officer I spoke with, nor the officer who handled the follow-up call were able to provide or tell me where I could find a copy of the regional health and safety plan. At one point I was told a plan “was being worked on,” but it was never made available. When I pressed the Coast Guard for the name of the site health and safety officer, I was told “safety folks,” handled such matters. Follow-up questions produced no more precise response.
Whether these responses were accurate or merely expedient is not possible to determine without a FOIA request. But this exchange and dozens of unanswered calls to contractors and subcontractors handling health and safety training, environmental and medical monitoring, and response worker hiring – along with numerous instances of conflicting information from communications personnel, characterize the confusion around this issue. After months of reporting on this issue, it seems clear that even with allowances for the extraordinary nature of this event, the huge number of people involved, and its vast geographic scope, that something is amiss in how channels of information were structured and that it was clearly adversely affecting those involved in the response.
These impressions are reflected in a report on the BP/Deepwater Horizon response released this week by the Center for Progressive Reform (CPR), which concludes that existing federal oil spill emergency response policies are fundamentally flawed and have led to inadequate occupational health and safety protections for thousands of workers.
CPR, a non-profit research and education organization that focuses on environmental health and safety issues, contends that the National Contingency Plan sets up a response structure that leaves the Occupational Health and Safety Administration (OSHA) out of the chain of command and thus does not give sufficient authority to OSHA – or to the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Heath (NIOSH) – thus leading to inadequate planning and inadequate provisions for response-worker health and safety.
“From this “original sin,” flowed a number of negative consequences, some of which compromised the health and safety of cleanup workers,” says CPR.
While critical of the level and consistency of health and safety training for response workers – especially the use of personal protective equipment – the report praises OSHA for how quickly it got staff to the Gulf Coast and how the agency worked with the federal on-scene coordinator to extend OSHA’s oversight to off-shore work in federal waters. CPR also praises NIOSH for its ongoing efforts on follow-up health studies of response workers and for the agency’s Health Hazard Evaluations. But the report’s bottom line is that the National Contingency Plan lacks the measures needed to ensure response worker health and safety. The National Contingency Plan and the Regional and Area Contingency Plans it establishes, says CPR,
“consistently pass responsibility for ensuring worker safety down the line to the next entity that has a duty to participate in planning process, ending with the subcontractors that the oil companies hire to be “on call” in the event of a spill. But as they pass the buck, they never establish mechanisms for ensuring accountability at the next level for worker safety and health. The final entities, the oil companies’ subcontractors, have failed to fill in the gap, a lapse that regulators have not seen fit to correct.”
CPR also criticizes the National Contingency Plan (NCP) for fostering a response structure that allows for inadequate and/or inconsistent environmental monitoring and medical recordkeeping, and offers a series of recommendations for reforming the NCP, that include making OSHA part of the formal chain of command for any emergency oil spill response.
What is not reflected in the report, however, and what someone reading it not already familiar with how the BP/Deepwater Horizon response unfolded would not come away knowing, was just how many entities were involved. Also not expressed in the report is the perspective of affected communities and response workers themselves who, on a day-to-day basis, dealt primarily with agencies and organizations other than OSHA and NIOSH (on whom the report focuses.) State and local government agencies, local community organizations and hospitals, BP contractors and subcontractors – across four Gulf states – these were all the first ports-of-call for response workers. What is also not reflected as strongly as it might be is the degree of confusion and varying information on exposure hazards for response workers and affected communities.
Reforming the National Contingency Plan to give OSHA stronger and more immediate authority in an emergency response is clearly key to improving response worker health and safety. But to truly protect response workers, wouldn’t the system work best if no health and safety information – environmental and medical monitoring information – could be withheld by either the oil spill’s responsible party or the government pending litigation over oil spill damages?
Just yesterday I was told by Dr. Dale Sandler of the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences that is leading a $20 million Gulf Worker health effects study,
“We will explore the possibility of looking at medical records from BP. We do not have access to any such records at this time. Environmental monitoring records have been made available via websites and we intend to take full advantage of those and explore the existence of any other data that may not have been posted yet.”
Elizabeth Grossman is the author of Chasing Molecules: Poisonous Products, Human Health, and the Promise of Green Chemistry, High Tech Trash: Digital Devices, Hidden Toxics, and Human Health, and other books. Her work has appeared in a variety of publications including Scientific American, Salon, The Washington Post, The Nation, Mother Jones, Grist, and the Huffington Post. Chasing Molecules was chosen by Booklist as one of the Top 10 Science & Technology Books of 2009 and won a 2010 Gold Nautilus Award for investigative journalism.