Rig explosion killed, spill made workers sick

BLOOD PRESSURE: Workers cleaning up the oil spill for BP say they are suffering irritant effects and high blood pressure. Eleven died when the Deepwater Horizon rig exploded.

A chemical dispersant being used to fight the gulf oil spill is making workers sick, recent reports suggest. The disaster, where BP has repeatedly failed to stem the oil gusher and which started with a 20 April explosion on the Deepwater Horizon rig that killed 11 workers, has led to an increasing clamour for criminal charges to be levelled at the London-based multinational, which owns the well and is responsible for the cleanup.

Last week seven crew members aboard fishing vessels who had been working to cleanup Breton Sound, southeast of New Orleans, blamed the dispersant chemicals for health complaints including nausea, shortness of breath and high blood pressure. All were working on a cleanup crew south of Venice, Louisiana, and were admitted to hospital. Doctors who examined them said that their conditions were “related to some kind of irritant, combined with dehydration”.

The US government’s Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) had earlier asked BP to stop using the dispersant, known as Corexit, and find a safer alternative. BP disputed the agency’s assessment of its level of toxicity.

The Los Angeles Times reports a 25 May memo from David Michaels, head of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), to Coast Guard Adm. Thad Allen, the incident commander, expressed “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.”

Like previous BP-related disasters in Alaska and Texas, evidence has emerged that appears to show BP knowingly cut corners on maintenance and safety on Deepwater Horizon’s operations, which some commentators believe could amount to criminal violations of the Clean Water Act.

Others say that because people were killed, BP and company officials should face prosecution for negligent and reckless homicide, although charge the deaths have been largely overlooked as the focus has been on the environmental catastrophe.

“The worker safety issue has been completely lost in this story,” said Tom O’Connor, executive director of the National Council for Occupational Safety and Health. “It’s one of the biggest industrial disasters in recent history, and yet Congress [views it] the same as the public: They’re not seeing it as a worker safety issue.”

Federal statistics support O’Connor’s call for concern. Between 2003 and 2008, 646 US oil and gas workers were killed on the job, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, including 120 in 2008.

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