GULF SPILL:

Petition urges Obama admin to protect cleanup workers

A liberal group's online petition urging the Obama administration to take a firmer hand on protections for oil leak responders in the Gulf of Mexico has won the support of 11 House Democrats and 31 congressional candidates, as well as more than 31,000 others, since its launch early yesterday.

Dubbed "BP Makes Me Sick," the new worker-safety campaign is the brainchild of the Progressive Change Campaign Committee (PCCC), a liberal group that targeted the White House and other Democrats for failing to back the "public option" in the health care reform bill. PCCC founder Adam Green described the new oil-spill push as a message to the government on chemical exposures in the Gulf.

"This issue needs to be put much higher on the radar, and politicians at a much higher level need to be made to give answers," Green said. "We went into this really wanting to trust, but the more we learned, we realized that BP is running the show and their science can't be trusted."

The PCCC petition begins by drawing a comparison between "the denial of protective gear that hurt so many 9/11 clean-up workers" and reports from public-health advocates that BP has denied requests for respiratory protection from Gulf oil leak responders.

"President Obama and the federal government must demand that BP allow every clean-up worker who wants to wear respiratory protective equipment to do so -- and ensure that workers get the equipment and training they need to do their jobs safely," the petition states. Its signatories include Florida Rep. Kendrick Meek, the Democratic nominee in one of this year's most hotly contested U.S. Senate races, and Kentucky Attorney General Jack Conway, a Democrat who faces Republican Rand Paul in another top-tier Senate battle.

Environmental and public-health groups have long aired concerns that the soup of toxic chemicals from gushing crude and oil dispersants could cause long-term health problems for Gulf cleanup workers (Greenwire, June 11). A New Orleans meeting of the National Academies' Institute of Medicine last month brought similar warnings from academics and physicians about the unknown health consequences facing Gulf workers and residents.

The Occupational Safety & Health Administration (OSHA), however, has cited its chemical monitoring results in stating that most Gulf workers do not need respirators. The dangers of heat stress can cause negative symptoms of their own and may be exacerbated by the use of heavy respiratory protection, OSHA officials have said.

Clint Guidry, acting president of the Louisiana Shrimp Association and a signatory to the PCCC petition, said he fears that the group of fishing vessels working on burning off siphoned oil -- known as the "burn team" -- is falling through the cracks.

Guidry said members of the burn team are not receiving respiratory protection because BP is "extremely hesitant to say this is a dangerous situation."

The company's latest chemical testing summary found that the majority of offshore workers tested below government limits for exposure to many volatile organic compounds, though more than 20 percent of offshore responders were exposed to a chemical of concern that is linked to lingering health problems from the 1989 Exxon Valdez spill (Greenwire, July 8).

An OSHA spokesman did not return requests for comment on the petition's call for stronger enforcement of respirator standards.

Interim guidance issued last month by OSHA and the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) states that workers involved in burning siphoned crude from the well, such as Guidry's "burn team," may not need respiratory protection, except if winds redirect chemicals from oil combustion toward ships upwind of the burn site.

For responders closest to the source of the oil gusher, "respirators should be used in those situations where potentially excessive exposure is reasonably anticipated ... or where symptoms/health effects are being reported," according to OSHA and NIOSH. Those performing skimming, boom laying, dispersant use and other offshore work should shield their skin, but "[r]espiratory protection generally will not be necessary as symptoms/health effects are not expected to occur in this setting."

Lawmaker questions OSHA enforcement

One of the congressional backers of PCCC's campaign, Rep. Carolyn Maloney (D-N.Y.), wrote to OSHA chief David Michaels yesterday asking a series of questions about the agency's enforcement of respirator rules, given the assignment of "only 25 inspectors" to focus on oversight of worker protection in the Gulf.

"[W]hile personal protective equipment and respirators can effectively minimize the risks of exposure to toxic chemicals, the gear is only effective if it is worn," Maloney wrote. "And the gear may be discarded in conditions of high heat and humidity."

Michaels has acknowledged that the safety training given to some Gulf volunteers may be inadequate to protect them from the chemical hazards of oil cleanup. In a statement issued Wednesday, he urged any local worker fearing that insufficient guidance was given to call OSHA or file a complaint.

In addition to Meek and Maloney, the other lawmakers signing PCCC's petition are Reps. Alan Grayson (D-Fla.), Raúl Grijalva (D-Ariz.), Mary Jo Kilroy (D-Ohio), Alcee Hastings (D-Fla.), Chellie Pingree (D-Maine), Phil Hare (D-Ill.), Jared Polis (D-Colo.) and Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.).

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