The private contractor hired by BP PLC as the primary monitor of offshore workers in the Gulf of Mexico is no stranger to environmental calamity.
After a million gallons of oil spilled on a Louisiana town in 2005, after a flood of toxic coal ash smothered central Tennessee in 2008 and after defective Chinese drywall began plaguing Florida homeowners, the same firm was on the scene -- saying everything was fine.
Now that the Center for Toxicology and Environmental Health (CTEH) has a high-profile role in the Gulf spill, local community groups and other chemical testing veterans see a troubling pattern at work. As BP continues to claim that the leaking oil has caused "no significant exposures," despite the hospitalization of several workers and the sparse release of test data, these observers of CTEH's work say the firm has a vested interest in finding a clean bill of health to satisfy its corporate employer.
"It's essentially the fox guarding the chicken coop," said Nicholas Cheremisinoff, a former Exxon chemical engineer who now consults on pollution prevention.
"There is a huge incentive for them to under-report" the size of the spill, Cheremisinoff added, and "the same thing applies on the health and safety side."
Another toxicologist familiar with CTEH, who requested anonymity to avoid retribution from the firm, described its chemical studies as designed to meet the goals of its clients. "They're paid to say everything's OK," this source said. "Their work product is, basically, they find the least protective rules and regulations and rely on those."
When CTEH was hired by Murphy Oil Corp. to test for contamination from its post-Hurricane Katrina refinery spill in Chalmette, La., the company collected composite soil samples from multiple locations. U.S. EPA's plan for soil sampling in the area, however, specified that "grab" samples from one area should be used to ensure accuracy.
Even those broad details of methodology are unavailable for CTEH's efforts in the Gulf. The Occupational Safety & Health Administration (OSHA) has released the frequency and locations of its tests taken at 10 on-shore and near-shore sites, but BP has provided bar graphs that summarize ranges of workers' chemical exposures in general locations.
Not even federal health officials have seen CTEH's complete testing information.
John Howard, director of the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, told Greenwire this week that he wants to see a "centralized, coordinated, transparent database" of health data on Gulf workers.
"Not only government-collected data, but private contractors," Howard said.
After examining a list of past CTEH work, Rep. Lois Capps (D-Calif.) -- who has asked President Obama to formally relieve BP from the duty of protecting the health of Gulf workers and locals -- concluded that the firm's name "belies what they've really been [doing] ... protecting industry."
Capps said she believes lawmakers can pry loose more testing data from BP and the total amount of CTEH's contract with the oil company: "We're going to be getting into areas this company is not going to want to talk about."
CTEH's Arkansas headquarters did not return several requests for comment. The company's website states that it has worked for EPA and the Department of Homeland Security. CTEH does not appear on EPA's roster of active contractors, but records of the agency's Clean Air Act Advisory Committee show a CTEH employee serving as an "industry" member.
A spokeswoman for the Joint Incident Command Center in New Orleans confirmed that CTEH and Total Safety, a BP contractor specializing in monitoring equipment, are the primary monitors of offshore worker exposure during the ongoing oil disaster. She asserted that government plays a role in "a checks and balances system" for worker monitoring but did not provide more details on that system.
From Ecuador to Appalachia
Public health advocate Anne Rolfes, director of the nonprofit group Louisiana Bucket Brigade, led independent chemical testing after the 2005 Chalmette spill. In a report released as Murphy Oil was using CTEH data to dissuade locals from filing lawsuits, the Brigade cited videotapes that showed one of the firm's employees smacking a soil sample against the pavement to dilute any possible chemical contamination before testing.
"I'm not surprised" that BP has hired CTEH for post-spill testing, Rolfes said. "Just look at their fingerprints."
The group's fingerprints extend as far as the Amazon, where Chevron Corp. has waged a long legal battle after its Texaco affiliate closed down operations that left lingering pollution in Ecuadorian rain forests. Indigenous tribes filed a class-action lawsuit linking the company's chemicals to health hazards from birth defects to cancer.
David Hewitt, then CTEH's occupational health director, reported in a 2005 analysis that "a causal relationship between residence near the [Ecuador] oil fields and the reported health effects simply cannot be supported." Among the factors complicating the cases, he said, was recall bias that made women "more likely to recall a spontaneous abortion" if they believed a chemical exposure had occurred.
When Chevron later cited CTEH and other paid reviewers in an Ecuadorian newspaper ad criticizing studies that linked its oil fields to health hazards, 50 scientists wrote a protest letter warning the oil company's consultants to "not be surprised if they are called to task for serving the interests of corporations."
Cheremisinoff, the former Exxon chemical engineer, said he is "100 percent certain" that CTEH would appear as an expert witness on BP's behalf in lawsuits filed by workers or residents who suffer adverse health effects from the Deepwater Horizon spill.
CTEH's study of chemical odors from Chinese drywall, commissioned by manufacturer Knauf Plasterboard Tianjin in 2006, found that none of the product contained elevated levels of hydrogen sulfide or other gases. The Consumer Product Safety Commission disagreed, ranking Knauf products No. 1 and No. 4 on its top 10 list of "problem drywall" contaminated with hydrogen sulfide.
"I am pleased to report that according to the CTEH testing results there are no health risks associated with Knauf Tianjin's plasterboard," the company's CEO wrote in 2006 to an importer who had raised concerns with the product.
Matt Landon, a staff member at the anti-mountaintop removal mining group United Mountain Defense, encountered CTEH in the wake of the 2008 breach in a coal ash dam run by the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA). Landon said his group began its own air monitoring after finding CTEH employees installing low-volume monitors that community advocates believed were not strong enough to measure air quality in compliance with EPA standards.
"People were getting sick," Landon recalled, "eyes swelling up, rashes, ear aches, wedding bands tarnishing. They said it was taking them time to get high-volume monitors out there."
EPA audited TVA's air monitoring of the coal ash site in January and found that low-volume sampling procedures fell short of quality assurance standards agreed to by both agencies.
"I definitely do not have any faith in them at this point," Landon said of CTEH.
That Tennessee audit also found seven deficiencies at Bureau Veritas, one of the laboratories used to process TVA air samples. This month, BP cited Bureau Veritas as one of the companies helping to process tests of the oil giant's Gulf Coast workers.