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Government Watchdog Claims Gulf Oil Spill Workers Exposed to Hazardous Chemicals

Monday, May 6, 2013
By Robert Iafolla

Workers involved in the cleanup of the 2010 Deepwater Horizon disaster were exposed to harmful levels of a chemical used to disperse oil, but were not provided with adequate personal protective equipment or federally mandated training, a government watchdog group alleged in an investigative report.

The Government Accountability Project reported that some workers and area residents were sickened by their exposure to Corexit, despite representations by well owner BP PLC and government agencies that the chemical dispersant was low in toxicity

“After I got sprayed by the Corexit, within 24 hours I had boils on my neck,” cleanup worker Jorey Danos said in an affidavit included in the report. “They looked like a cluster of zits, but when I squeezed them blood and black puss would come to the surface.”


Whistleblower Accounts
GAP, working with the Louisiana Environmental Action Network, based the April 19 report on responses to Freedom of Information Act requests, documents in the public record, and interviews with 25 whistleblowers. Those interviewed included cleanup workers, government officials, area residents, divers contracted by the federal government, and doctors. Four whistleblowers spoke anonymously.

Some 47,000 workers were involved in the cleanup effort after 210 million gallons of crude oil spilled into the Gulf of Mexico, according to the report. As part of that effort, 1.8 million gallons of a product known as Corexit was used to break up the oil. The Environmental Protection Agency has approved the use of Corexit as a dispersant. The chemical is banned in the United Kingdom, however.

Two formulations of Corexit--Corexit 9527 and Corexit 9500--were used, GAP said. The EPA entry for Corexit 9500 lists the chemical ingredients as “confidential,” although it does indicate the product contains 0.16 part per million of arsenic. The entry for Corexit 9527 also lists some ingredients as confidential, while noting the product uses 2-butoxyethanol as a solvent and contains 1 part per million of chromium.

The chemical 2-butoxyethanol was linked to health effects among Exxon Valdez oil spill cleanup workers, according to the GAP report. The chemical was detected in 20 percent of offshore Deepwater Horizon cleanup workers at double the safety standard established by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, GAP said.


Exposure to Corexit
People exposed to the chemical told GAP they have experienced a wide variety of negative health effects, including abdominal pain, blood in urine, heart palpitations, hypertension, inability to withstand exposure to the sun, organ damage, migraines, memory loss, rapid weight loss, skin lesions, respiratory and nervous system damage, temporary paralysis, and vomiting episodes.

BP spokesman Scott Dean told BNA that the company is “not aware of any data showing worker or public exposures to dispersants at levels that would pose a health or safety concern.”

EPA spokeswoman Enesta Jones told BNA that the agency has not reviewed the GAP report and cannot comment on its veracity. But she pointed out that Corexit is “still on the National Contingency Plan Product Schedule because it meets the current regulatory requirements.”

“Note that the agency is in the process of developing a proposal to revise the regulatory requirements for testing the efficacy and toxicity of products to be listed on the Product Schedule,” Jones added.

Cleanup workers sued Nalco, the manufacturer of Corexit. In November a federal judge dismissed the lawsuit, ruling that the Clean Water Act and the government's National Contingency Plan preempted state and general maritime law (In re: Oil Spill by the Oil Rig “Deepwater Horizon”, E.D. La., No. MDL-2179, 11/28/12).

Nalco spokesman Roman Blahoski told BNA the company responded to requests for Corexit made by “those charged with protecting the Gulf and mitigating the environmental, health, and economic impact of this event.”

“Nalco was never involved in decisions relating to the use, volume, and application of its dispersant,” Blahoski said.


Personal Protective Equipment
GAP alleged in the report that many workers were provided minimal or no personal protective equipment.

Citing public documents, the report said the Labor Department's Occupational Safety and Health Administration identified heat-related illness as the most serious occupational hazard for cleanup workers, and the agency explained that respirators were not used because some workers may fail to pass the medical evaluation for respirator use.

“I had an apron, a hairnet, a spatula, and some rubber gloves, and they told me to go in the midst of this dangerous chemical environment,” cleanup worker Jamie Griffin said in an affidavit contained in the report.


Worker Training
Moreover, the workers told GAP they either received no training, or were trained at a level below what is mandated under OSHA's Hazardous Waste Operations and Emergency Response standard. The standard calls for 40-hour training courses for workers “engaged in hazardous substance removal or other activities which expose or potentially expose workers to hazardous substances and health hazards” and 24-hour courses for workers unlikely to be exposed to substances over a permissible exposure limit.

GAP cited OSHA records showing that 30,000 workers went through four-hour training sessions, while noting that workers cleaning up the Exxon Valdez oil spill received similarly abbreviated training.

OSHA spokesman Jesse Lawder said the agency is reviewing the GAP report and was unable to comment as of press time.

By Robert Iafolla


Text of an executive summary of the report is available at /uploadedFiles/Content/News/Legal_and_Business/Bloomberg_Law/Legal_Reports/Executive_Summary_Corexit(1).pdf. The full report and affidavits are available at http://www.whistleblower.org/program-areas/public-health/corexit.

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