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Mixed Messages as the Oil Continues to Spew

As oil continues to spew into the Gulf of Mexico, BP, cleanup crews and the EPA differ on the health risks for workers there. One EPA official likened the situation to the World Trade Center cleanup.

You've probably heard that BP and government officials -- after initial claims of progress and several delays -- finally announced that the "top kill" failed. But that wasn't the only news about the spill this weekend. Here are other developments that got fewer headlines.

Health Concerns With Cleanup Workers

It's still unclear whether the health problems cleanup workers are experiencing are caused by the oil or dispersants, but administration officials warned BP that it must take "responsibility for the health consequences of the disaster."

Both the EPA and the Coast Guard have said that air sampling turned up permissible levels of chemical exposure, but according to The Washington Post, one senior official at the EPA isn't buying it:

At least one senior official at the Environmental Protection Agency has questioned the official reassurances, noting the dearth of monitoring data that has been released publicly. He likened the response to previous toxic waste disasters and the World Trade Center cleanup, which left workers with long-term respiratory problems despite repeated official claims that workers did not need respirators because the working conditions were safe.

"It's unbelievable what's going on. It's like déjà vu all over again," Hugh Kaufman, a senior policy analyst at the EPA's office of solid waste and emergency response, said during an interview Thursday. "There's no way you can be working in that toxic soup without getting exposures."

The Obama administration has sent a mobile medical unit to Louisiana to provide basic medical care to coastal residents and cleanup workers.

BP and the Coast Guard have said that workers were not supplied with respirators because air sampling had shown they were not needed. Some workers have alleged that they were told they'd be fired if they wore their own masks, but BP spokesman Graham MacEwen told CNN that workers wanting to wear masks are "free to do so," so long as they get instructions from their supervisors on how to use them.

Another BP spokesman, Jon Pack, told The Wall Street Journal that BP is "not holding back on equipment," having stocked respirators on boats working near the ruptured well. According to Pack, workers on those boats can use those respirators.

In an interview with CNN, BP's CEO Tony Hayward suggested that cleanup workers could be getting sick with food poisoning. The Times-Picayune writes of this televised exchange:

"I'm sure they were genuinely ill, but whether it was anything to do with dispersants and oil, whether it was food poisoning or some other reason for them being ill," Hayward said. "You know, food poisoning is clearly a big issue when you have a concentration of this number of people in temporary camps, temporary accommodation."

Where the Oil Is

Hayward also stated over the weekend that "the oil is on the surface," and "there aren't any plumes," according to The Associated Press.

That's a reference to--or actually, a denial of--the deep-water plumes of dispersed oil discovered independently by scientists from several different universities

It also seems to contradict what BP's own chief operating officer, Doug Suttles, has told the media. Last month, he explained to CNN how dispersants work (emphasis mine):

"So if it works as we have seen in the test, it should mean that there's much less oil on the surface, which means our total dispersant usage will drop significantly and we should be able to monitor or report on that over the next few days."

We've asked BP about the conflicting statements and for clarification on the use of respirators, and will update if we hear back.

What's Next for Stopping the Leak

By now BP has attempted to stanch the Gulf gusher with undersea robots, a large containment dome, a small containment box, the top kill, the junk shot, and an insertion tube to siphon up oil.

Now the plan is to cut through the leaking pipe at the top of the blowout preventer and place a containment cap over it. This process, starting todaycould take up to a week and could potentially increase the flow of oil by 20 percent before the containment cap is lowered, according to a government estimate. (See a helpful graphic from The Wall Street Journal.)

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