Gulf Oil Spill: BP's Looming Health Problem

Last Updated May 27, 2010 9:14 AM EDT

BP's oil spill is quickly turning into a regional health issue. Out-of-work fishermen hired by BP to help with the Gulf of Mexico oil spill cleanup are now reporting headaches, dizziness, nausea and difficulty breathing after working for long hours near oil and dispersant-contaminated water, the Los Angeles Times reported Wednesday.

Unfortunately, the feds have been slow on the uptake. Rep. Charlie Melancon, D-La., worried about the reports has asked Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius for the agency to help provide medical treatment. Melancon wants the federal government to open mobile clinics in rural areas to treat the fishermen, the LA Times reported. He expects BP to pay for the clinics, although the company hasn't responded yet.

Or, here's another option. How about taking the preemptive step of overseeing BP's employment of a vulnerable group of people left unemployed by the spill?

It's not as if the feds were blindsided by this development. BP proved early on that it should be watched. Several weeks ago, BP admitted that it asked fishermen to sign contracts that contained a waiver clause designed to distance the oil company from liability. BP CEO Tony Hayward called it an early misstep and said it was unintentional. BP later agreed to drop the provisions in the contract. Regardless, the waivers should have tripped the alarm bells and sent giant red flags waving in the air.

BP has trained workers in the cleanup effort and says it provides protective gear for workers directly handling oil. Media accounts and photos confirm BP's assertions. But there are clearly other workers who aren't working with protective gear. The worker interviewed in the LA Times article was not provided with protective equipment, and was told not to pick up oil-related waste. Still, he became ill as he laid containment booms near a dark substance floating nearby.

There have been assurances from the feds that workers safety will be watched closely. But reports of sick workers continue to trickle in, leaving a clear gap between the intended oversight and prevention. There's at least one effort to educate fishermen, although it's not being directed by the feds. Alaskan fishermen, who were involved in the cleanup after the Exxon Valdez spill, are expected to arrive in the Gulf this week.

The BP-controlled cleanup has left some federal agencies rather impotent. BP has reportedly taken hundreds of samples of so-called volatile organic carbons, like benzene, and said all levels were within federal safety standards, the LA Time article said. And yet, BP won't release the data. The oil company has shared it with OSHA, the agency in charge of worker health and safety. When McClatchy News Service requested the information, OSHA said the information was BP's and "not ours to publish." OSHA has reportedly encouraged BP to release the information.

Image via Flickr user DVIDSHUB, CC 2.0 Related:
  • Kirsten Korosec

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