By Elizabeth Grossman

Since release of its Final Report to the President on January 11th, the National Oil Spill Commission has released five additional papers (called “working papers”) reviewing aspects of the BP/Deepwater Horizon oil disaster – three on February 3rd and two on February 8th. On February 11th, National Oil Spill Commissioners Don Boesch and Terry Garcia testified before two House subcommittees. The final report, the working papers, and the Commissioners’ prepared testimony all take a critical look at the industry’s preparation for such a disaster, examine the policies and structure of government agencies historically responsible for offshore drilling oversight, and make recommendations for how industry and government might move forward to restore and repair both damaged Gulf resources and confidence in offshore drilling.

All of these critiques focus overwhelmingly on the circumstances that led up to the April 20th blowout and how such an event might be prevented in the future. Only the Final Report examines response-worker and public health issues, and where the Commission’s critique is most illuminating is in its analysis of how the National Contingency Plan structure set the stage for what became ongoing contentions over health and safety issues throughout the response. (My earlier post on the Final Report addresses the tangled government and industry structures that set the stage for the disaster itself.) As someone who covered the disaster extensively during the months-long clean-up operation, I found the report illuminating but, because there are so many outstanding questions regarding health of clean-up workers and Gulf communities, wish the Commission had delved more deeply into these issues.

Many responders, communication challenges
As the Commission describes pointedly, the offshore drilling industry and the oil spill response structures established by the National Contingency Plan (the guidelines for responding to an oil spill of “national significance” set out by the Oil Pollution Act of 1990 passed in the wake of the Exxon Valdez spill) rely on a network of public and private players. Working with a web of contractors and subcontractors in tandem with government agencies that perform both oversight and various services is the norm in offshore drilling. So those familiar with the industry would not be surprised to learn that a diverse cast would be involved in the cleanup effort and result in a multi-layered authority structure. However, the extent of resources mustered in response to the unprecedented scale of the BP/Deepwater Horizon blow-out was unusual and clearly contributed to the subsequent communication and information gaps. As the Commission describes it:

At the peak of the response, more than 45,000 people participated. In addition to
deploying active-duty members to the Gulf, the Coast Guard called up reservists. Some 1,100 Louisiana National Guard troops served under the direction of Unified Command. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), NOAA, and other federal agencies shifted hundreds of responders to the region.

… [While] the Coast Guard oversaw the response at the surface, MMS [Minerals Management Service] primarily oversaw source-control operations…MMS and Coast Guard officials in Houston participated in the drafting process to help identify and mitigate hazards, including risks to worker safety. At Unified Area Command, Lars Herbst, MMS Gulf of Mexico Regional Director, or his deputy, Mike Saucier, would review and approve the procedures, before the Federal On-Scene Coordinator gave the final go-ahead. This hierarchy of approvals remained in place throughout the containment effort.

Where the Commission comments on problems created by the response structure regarding response-worker and public health, it focuses on problems of coordination between the Unified Command and state and local governments. Among those cited are difficulties in administering the Vessels of Opportunity program (the hiring for cleanup duty of fishing boat crews put out of work by the disaster), the demands from Gulf Coast officials for additional local protection from incoming oil, and problems in responding to public concern about health effects of chemicals associated with the oil and cleanup. What is not evident from the Commission’s account, however, is what was so evident to those of us who reported on the event: the persistence of enormous information gaps that resulted from this multi-layered structure, particularly where questions of response-worker hiring, health, and safety were concerned.

Where it focuses on public health issues, the Commission concentrates on the NCP structure and policy provisions that informed how theses aspects of the response unfolded. The Commission homes in on the failure of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to adequately form plans for dealing with the likely health impacts of a massive oil spill. This had implications for the health of cleanup workers and Gulf residents. It also had implications for decisions about BP’s responsibility for costs associated with health aspects of the response:

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention represents the Department of Health and Human Services on the National Response Team and had participated in recent spill training exercises. The Centers for Disease Control, however, had not foreseen that an oil spill could affect the health of the broader population and had not fully considered the role health agencies might play in a spill response …Others in the Department, including the Assistant Secretary for Preparedness and Response, had not either. Consequently, the Department had to consider during the disaster how it would fund spill-related activities, because BP would have to pay only for those deemed response measures by Unified Command. The Department was concerned that neither the Oil Spill Liability Trust Fund nor BP would reimburse it for activities such as long-term health surveillance, and negotiations over what costs qualified for reimbursement took time. At the request of Unified Command, Health and Human Services eventually, in June, sent a Senior Health Policy Advisor to support the National Incident Commander on public health issues.

Community and worker health concerns
The Commission notes that among the issues that became particularly contentious, particularly at the height of the response, were those of occupational and public health. As described by the Commission, among the causes were a combination of the multi-actor, public-private NCP structure and the fact that “human-health effects are the least-recognized fallout from the spill, and those least-well addressed in existing law and policies.” In the Commission’s analysis these factors also contributed heavily to the fraught relations between state and federal government agencies, BP, response workers, affected community members, and other civilians that surfaced particularly over issues of personal health and safety.

The report does observe that concerns arose regarding the health effects of response work and that government health agencies’ insufficient preparation caused them to miss an important opportunity to gather baseline data on workers’ health:

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) began working with Unified Command at the end of April; under the National Contingency Plan, all response actions must comply with OSHA’s training and safety requirements. OSHA established rules regarding protective equipment and, because the response relied in part on untrained workers, a shortened training course. Residents were eager to take on cleanup jobs, but some worried that, notwithstanding OSHA’s involvement, response-related work would affect their health.

… Though health agencies eventually issued personal protective equipment guidelines for response workers and created a registry of these newly trained personnel, they missed the crucial window for screening their baseline physical health before the workers were directly exposed to oil products.

Yet having spent months reporting on the Gulf cleanup, I found it a striking omission that the Commission report does not fully convey the sense of confusion and lack of clarity on response-worker and community health issues that existed throughout the response (several of my posts describe some of the issues). Also notable from my perspective is the fact that the Commission does not more closely examine the decision-making processes around response-worker health and safety – or how these details were communicated to cleanup workers, community members, or the public, including via the news media. The report does mention tensions that arose over the hiring of non-local residents for cleanup work, but it doesn’t give a complete picture of the extremely disparate cast of hundreds and hundreds of civilians who participated in cleanup work across the affected states, hired and trained by networks of contractors and subcontractors in Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, and Florida – often without clear communication to state, local or on-site Coast Guard officials.

Also absent from the report is discussion of the debates that arose over the adequacy of the shortened response-worker training course or about the availability and need for personal protective equipment. The latter is alluded to, but readers who had not followed the response closely would be unaware of just how contentious the issue of protective equipment became or that tensions surrounding it were exacerbated by poor communication about contaminant exposure issues and delays in responding to questions about environmental, accident, and illness monitoring.

It’s notable – though not mentioned by the Commission – that no response safety plans have been made publicly available. I also found that when asked about Incident Command responsibility for specific aspects of response-worker safety, Coast Guard officers staffing the Joint Information Centers were rarely able to supply answers and private contractors generally would not provide any substantive information. The Commission singles out CNN for what it considers reporting that contributed to poor working relations between local elected officials and the Unified Command. The report does not, however, mention what I and numerous other journalists experienced: on-site response personnel (contractors, local law enforcement, clean-up workers among others) who said they could not speak with news media or how difficult it was to get information about health and safety issues that was not already posted to a website.

Occupational health issues for responders are simply not focus of the Commission’s review: OSHA is only mentioned twice in the body of the report. The role of the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS) in the response is not described at all, nor is the health impacts roster maintained by the Louisiana Department of Health and Hospitals. The body of the report mentions neither the National Institutes of Health nor the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health.

Preventing future disasters
Not surprisingly, the Commission’s recommendations focus on reform of the offshore drilling industry and government policies and practices that resulted in inadequate oversight of increasingly complex and risky technologies. Recommendations for improved risk management, safety and pollution-prevention measures, and increased oversight of all aspects of offshore drilling are all detailed in the report. The Commission also comes down hard on the need to strengthen state and local government involvement – as well as that of potentially affected community members – in oil spill contingency planning. It calls for increased safety protections for offshore drilling workers, but it does not detail recommendations for strengthening provisions for response-worker health and safety. Given the concern, frustration, and lack of clarity around these issues, it would seem an important addition to the Commission’s recommendations to have articulated how oil-spill response planning could be improved to better address both civilian cleanup worker health and safety issues and the provision of clearer channels of communication around contaminant exposures for workers and affected communities.

Preventing future oil spills and oil extraction accidents is obviously the primary goal of the Oil Spill Commission’s work. Among its other goals is to suggest changes that will better protect drilling industry communities – including those who might be called to response work – from the kinds of impacts resulting from the BP/Deepwater Horizon disaster. And while it may not have been a task the Commission gave itself for these reports, a closer examination of exactly how response workers were hired, how their workplace health and safety was considered (particularly in the context of local environmental health conditions), and how the many actors in such an environmental emergency response interacted around these issues would be of great value.

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.