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2010-05-27

Coast Guard Grounds Ships Involved in Spill Cleanup After 7 Fall Ill; BP Reportedly Preventing Fishermen from Wearing Respirators

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Guests

Clint Guidry, president of the Louisiana Shrimp Association.

Albert Huang, environmental justice attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council. He recently returned from the Gulf region.

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At least seven fishermen involved in the cleanup of the BP oil spill were hospitalized on Wednesday after reporting nausea, dizziness, headaches and chest pains. The fishermen were likely exposed to both the leaked oil and chemical dispersants. As a precautionary measure, the Coast Guard has ordered all 125 commercial ships helping with the cleanup to return to land. For weeks, cleanup crews hired by BP have been reporting health issues, but their complaints have largely been ignored. We speak to Clint Guidry, president of the Louisiana Shrimp Association, and Albert Huang, an environmental justice attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council. [includes rush transcript]

Transcript

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

JUAN GONZALEZ: In Louisiana, seven fishermen involved in the cleanup of the BP oil spill were hospitalized on Wednesday after reporting nausea, dizziness, headaches and chest pains. The crew members were working aboard three separate vessels. The fishermen were likely exposed to both the leaked oil and chemical dispersants. As a precautionary measure, the Unified Command has ordered all 125 commercial ships helping with the cleanup in Breton Sound, Louisiana to return to land.

For weeks, cleanup crews hired by BP have been reporting health issues, but their complaints have largely been ignored. As recently as Tuesday, BP spokesperson Graham MacEwen told the Los Angeles Times he was unaware of any health complaints among cleanup workers. BP has refused to provide respirators to many hired fishermen, and the company has reportedly threatened to fire workers who use their own respirators on the job.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re joined now in New Orleans by Clint Guidry, president of the Louisiana Shrimp Association. He’s a third-generation shrimp fisherman.

This is Democracy Now! We welcome you to the studios of Democracy Now!, though we’re speaking to you in New Orleans. Tell us what’s happening, Clint.

CLINT GUIDRY: Well, good morning. Thanks for having me.

This is a situation that has been ongoing for several weeks now. Having had prior training and experience working with the oil and the chemicals in oil and their danger — [no audio] — several of the fishermen out on the worksite, they were complaining of burning eyes and strong smells. And my experience told me that they were getting exposed to dangerous chemicals — the benzenes, all the light ends off the crude — and this Corexit is a new experience for me. I have been doing some research. It contains a substance called 2-butoxyethanol, up to 60 percent by volume, which is a very, very dangerous chemical. I don’t have a lot of experience with it, but just doing the research. And I knew that they spraying this chemical in the same area where my fishermen were working. And I have brought this to light. I have tried to make public. As a matter of fact, just a couple of days ago, three days ago, I met with a Washington delegation in Galliano and expressed my concerns that this was happening.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Now, Clint Guidry, what about OSHA, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration? Aren’t they supposed to be monitoring worksites that involve US companies, even if they’re offshore?

CLINT GUIDRY: I’m not sure about that, but I’m understanding it’s MMS and US Coast Guard in this situation.

AMY GOODMAN: What about respirators? Are people wearing respirators?

CLINT GUIDRY: No, ma’am. Having had prior experience, I know these people. They’re friends. They’re family. I bought respirators, and I brought them down to these people. And when they tried to wear them, the BP representatives on site told them that it wasn’t a dangerous situation, and they didn’t need to wear them, and if they did, they would be taken off the job.

AMY GOODMAN: If they wore respirators, they’d be taken off the job?

CLINT GUIDRY: Yes.

AMY GOODMAN: Why?

CLINT GUIDRY: Because BP lies, and BP protects BP. And that is the biggest problem we have in the south of Louisiana right now, is BP, with its big oil big money, is buying up all the cover — and when I say "cover" I mean camouflage — that they can to try to make a little of the situation, not only environmentally, but health-wise. This is ridiculous.

AMY GOODMAN: But how does wearing respirators threaten BP? How do the workers, the cleanup crews, wearing respirators, how does that threaten BP?

CLINT GUIDRY: If you would do your research, the same situation occurred with Exxon Valdez over twenty years ago. It is a question of liability. The minute BP declares that there is a respiratory danger on the situation is the day that they let the door open for liability suits down the line. If they could have gotten away with covering this up, like they did in Alaska Valdez situation, like Exxon, they would not have to pay a penny for any kind of health-related claims.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Mr. Guidry, in terms of the — you mentioned your experience in the past. Could you talk a little bit about the prior experience that you’ve had that would indicate to you that this is a serious problem?

CLINT GUIDRY: Yes. You know, fishermen down here, we work a lot of oil fuel, oil-related work in our offseasons. We have had — we’ve coexisted. And BP actually has given some good oil companies a bad name. And back in the '80s, I started and continued in the ’90s. I worked with a company by the name of Brown & Root Industrial Services. We did what we referred to as shutdowns and turnarounds, where we go into units, or whole refineries are shut down, and you go in and you perform maintenance, at which time you're exposed to all the dangerous chemicals that come with oil refinery work — the benzenes, the ethylenes, the tylenes. My specialty was working acid units. Acid is used in the refining process to purify gasoline. I worked hydrofluoric acid. I worked with sulfuric acid.

I’ve worked in Louisiana, Texas, Mississippi, California. I did a job — the last job I held with Brown & Root was in St. Croix at the Hess refinery. I had — under my control, I was responsible for up to 800 people. And we always got the job done safely, and we always got it in on time. But we had proper protective equipment. We didn’t — you know, what you want to do when confronted with a situation like this is stop. Stop. And if anything, you overprotect. Nobody has ever been killed by being overprotective.

JUAN GONZALEZ: How prevalent — if you’ve been out there, how prevalent are the chemical odors out on the Gulf?

CLINT GUIDRY: The closest I got was Venice, Louisiana, and you could smell it from Venice. At the time I was down there, they were actually spraying Corexit 9527A on the oil spill on top of the water and spraying all around — Venice sits on a peninsula, the Mississippi River, right at the — right above the Head of the Passes. And they were actually spraying this Corexit in the air all around where people were living, with kids and children, and continuously saying how safe it was, which is incorrect.

AMY GOODMAN: Clint Guidry, the fishermen, the cleanup workers who have been brought to the hospital, what do you understand about their condition and who they are?

CLINT GUIDRY: I haven’t — I’m not going to say any names, because I’m not sure of the personnel, because of the HIPAA, I think, laws in the hospital. They don’t release information. It’s some people that I know. I’ve heard a few names. I’m not going to say that, out of respect for the family and the person. I think all that will come out. When I left last night at the hospital, these workers were — I was being told by the emergency room people that they were OK and they were being stabilized. And it’s chemical poisoning. They will detox them. And they may be OK today and tomorrow. But being exposed to dangerous carcinogens, who knows what’s going to hold, what’s in their future?

AMY GOODMAN: Are fishermen willing to speak out?

CLINT GUIDRY: No. Maybe now. Believe it or not, we have endured four major hurricanes in three years. We’re up to our eyeballs in SBA loans, small grant loan programs that went on in the state. People — we had a very bad year last year price-wise. This is a job that these folks were getting paid $3,000 a day. It was a choice — I spoke to several individuals. It was a choice between not paying the bills and having food for their families and maybe taking a chance of getting sick.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Your governor, Governor Bobby Jindal, has been very outspoken in his criticisms of how some aspects of the response have been conducted. Have you appealed to Louisiana health officials or to your local government to intercede in one way or another about the issues, these health issues, with the fishermen?

CLINT GUIDRY: Yes, I have. But, you know, their hands — you know, I spoke the other day — Bobby Jindal is a very good man. I meet with him — I’ve met with him several times. He’s done a lot for the shrimp fishery and the state. But when BP is the entity in charge, there’s not a lot that local people can do, including the governor. I met with two cabinet-ranked people from Washington, Secretary Napolitano, Secretary Salazar. I sat six feet from them three days ago and told them this was going to happen. If they can’t do anything about it, or won’t do anything about it, how do you expect our governor to?

AMY GOODMAN: What has happened to the fishing industry in the region, Clint Guidry? You’re president of the Louisiana Shrimp Association.

CLINT GUIDRY: Basically, we shut down, ma’am. This has been a hit and miss. Our Secretary of Wildlife and Fisheries, Secretary Barham, is trying to do a wonderful job of allowing us opportunities to fish in safe areas. We are constantly monitoring the seafood. When areas are ready for harvest and it’s safe, then he opens the season. But we have been start, stop, start, stop. We should have had one of the best seasons we’ve had in a long time, since 2000. And BP stopped that from happening.

JUAN GONZALEZ: You mentioned earlier the dispersant. There are some critics who say that the long-term impact of the dispersant could be even greater than the actual oil spill itself, in terms of marine life. Your sense of what the dispersant is doing in terms of the potential for destruction of the fisheries in that area?

CLINT GUIDRY: The trade-off position is a false one, because eventually this dispersant is going to cause whole species to collapse. This is going to be, you know, a collapse of some of the shrimp species, the fish, the turtles, tuna. I mean, this is unbelievable that we did this. You just added poison on top of a bad situation.

AMY GOODMAN: President Obama is coming to the Gulf tomorrow, on Friday. He’s just come from several fundraisers in California, which people are very critical of — among them, the Getty home. That’s the Getty fortune, oil. What is your message, Clint Guidry, for President Obama?

CLINT GUIDRY: You know, President Obama ran, and he carried the hopes and dreams of young Americans with him. I would tell him, should I meet with him face to face, to be a man and take control of the situation, because this is totally of control.

AMY GOODMAN: What are the first steps you think he needs to take?

CLINT GUIDRY: Have a military takeover of the cleanup, especially. Let BP and their, quote-unquote, "expertise" be responsible for shutting this well off.

JUAN GONZALEZ: But what do you say to those even in the government who has say that the government doesn’t have the expertise, that only the oil companies themselves have the expertise, and that the whole cry for a federal takeover would not really change anything?

CLINT GUIDRY: If the oil company is such experts, why are they trying to kill my fishermen?

AMY GOODMAN: Well, Clint Guidry, we’re going to leave it there. I want to thank you for being with us. He’s speaking to us from New Orleans. He’s president of the Louisiana Shrimp Association. The numbers are changing right now of the number of cleanup crew and fishermen who have been hospitalized. First we heard four, then we heard seven, then we heard nine. We will keep people informed. Thanks for joining us.

This is Democracy Now!, as we turn now to our next guest to talk more about these dangers. We’re joined in our studio right here by Albert Huang. He’s an environmental justice attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council. He’s just returned from the Gulf region.

First, let’s start with this issue of respirators and the cleanup crew and the fishermen being told, if they put on respirators that they themselves even brought, since they’re not being provided by BP, they’ll lose their jobs in cleaning up.

ALBERT HUANG: Well, under the — the Occupational Safety and Health Administration has a number of regulations in place for worker safety, and they have released, with the National Institute for Environmental Health, a number of fact sheets saying that workers need to protect themselves. And in these fact sheets, they said you need to wear boots, you need to wear gloves, overalls, and life vests so people don’t drown. And recently we saw in the LA Times yesterday, and there’s been photos all over the internet and Facebook, as well, showing workers in street clothes doing cleanup. So that’s our first concern.

The second concern is that there are also regulations that OSHA has for wearing respirators. It’s the Respiratory Protection Standards in OSHA, and it says that if you’re in a workplace that — where there are inhaled — possible inhaled health risks, then the employer needs to provide a respiratory program, a plan, of how you’re going to protect your workers, which may include providing respirators. We suspect that BP does not have a plan. And one of the reasons why they’re not allowing workers to wear these respirators is because they don’t have a plan. And if they were to allow people to wear respirators without a plan, that would reveal they’re actually in violation of OSHA standards. So that’s one possibility right there. The second one, of course, is that, you know, if you don’t act like there’s a problem, there is no problem publicly. And the fact that — I mean, we saw this after Katrina in New Orleans, where there was an issue with air quality, and many health experts were recommending wearing respirators. And the image of people walking around in respirators, I think, was very daunting for a lot of government regulators, that, you know, there was a real problem. So that might be another thing that’s going on, too.

But clearly there are OSHA requirements that say that in a workplace, to protect our workers, if there are inhaled risks, where in this case there surely are. It’s been very well studied that, you know, oil or petroleum products have lots of constituents, volatile organic compounds, which include benzene, which are strongly linked to leukemia and other cancer-causing diseases — other cancer-causing chemicals. The National Academy of Science released a study saying that 40 percent of oil, once it hits the air, evaporates. And that’s what we’re concerned about. When we were down in Robert, Louisiana, we met with Central Command, and we raised the issue of, you know, how much oil is being spilled. We need to know this. And one of the responses was that, "Well, 40 percent of it evaporates into the air anyways." Well, that’s exactly what we’re concerned about, is, of that oil evaporating into the air, there’s these volatile organic compounds, there’s hydrogen sulfide, which smells like rotten eggs and leads to like hardness in breathing, irritation of the eyes, and then the benzene itself, which can — like I said, has cancer-causing effects, can lead to burning of the eyes, the nose, nose bleeding, coughing. I mean, these are all of the symptoms that we hear a lot of people reporting on the ground.

JUAN GONZALEZ: The reports that we’re getting are that the testing is being done largely under the control of BP, that there apparently is no independent testing being done by government regulators. And yet we’re getting reports like this one from George Barisich, who’s the president of the United Commercial Fishermen’s Association in St. Bernard Parish, who said that the fishermen on Chandeleur Island have found all the birds were walking around like a bunch of zombies. So, obviously, the bird population is being affected by some of these vapors and odors that are out there. What about the people? Who is independently monitoring?

ALBERT HUANG: That’s an excellent question. I mean, currently, EPA is monitoring air quality on land, because EPA has jurisdiction over regulating the environment once the oil hits land. The question — I mean, so there has been air monitoring done, and to EPA’s credit, they’ve done — I mean, Lisa Jackson has been trying to be a great leader in trying to ensure that a lot of the information is collected. However, when it gets to what’s going on in the water, that the EPA has claimed they do not have jurisdiction over that. People who are running the show, it’s the Coast Guard and NOAA, and they don’t traditionally have expertise in air quality monitoring. And so — and BP has done some of their own air monitoring, provided to EPA — a lot of information being passed around — and the EPA is posting that data. It’s a limited set of data, and I think it’s very difficult to tell what’s going on. And on top of that, where the workers are is there’s some on the water, so we need more data, and there’s not enough information. But again, like I said before, we know what are the constituents that are in oil, and we’re concerned about it. Dispersants are another issue, as well.

And also, there’s workers on land, like on the Chandeleur Islands, like you mentioned. There’s workers on the land cleaning up the oil. And that’s where oil is also evaporating, and we’re concerned about their inhalation risks on those pieces of property. And there’s no air monitoring going on there. So we’ll be working with a lot of local groups to request the Department of Labor work, and OSHA work, with EPA and the Coast Guard to do this air monitoring. I mean, with this lack of information, it’s very difficult to tell what’s going on and what the real risks are. What we do know are that people are reporting lots of health problems. And as this morning we learned people are going to the hospital, the emergency has elevated one step up.

AMY GOODMAN: The NRDC was giving out respirators?

ALBERT HUANG: That’s correct. I mean, it’s interesting that a nonprofit has to come in and provide respirators, when the employer or the government won’t do it. But when we went down to Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama, we went down and purchased as many respirators as we could. These are fitted respirators. I mean, it’s not just any type of respirator you need to wear. Most of these fishermen, many of them have facial hair, and because of that, you need to really have it fitted. There’s actually a fitted training in how you do that. And the whole idea is to close off the ability for vapors to get in and to be inhaled. And you can purchase them at your Home Depots, at any — I mean, they’re very — they’re not difficult to get. And it’s too bad that, you know, BP actually isn’t allowing them to wear it, because they do a pretty good job of filtering out the chemicals.

AMY GOODMAN: So the government isn’t giving out respirators?

ALBERT HUANG: The government is not giving out, but it is not really the government’s duty to do that. I mean, it is very possible. The government could decide they want to supply them. If the government took over the cleanup, as others have suggested, they could provide those material — that equipment. But the way it’s set up right now, BP is the responsible party. Under the Oil Pollution Act, they are the responsible party, and they are strictly liable. And there’s all this discussion about whether the government should step in, whether BP should be — I mean, to be honest, it’s kind of a — it’s a tough call. I mean, if BP can’t fix the problem, many of us wonder, can the government do a better job? And, I mean, from a political standpoint, I’m not really sure the administration wants to come in, take over, and then this is their problem they have to solve. So there are a lot of responsible parties here. What we see is a lack of information and the inability of leadership on the part of the government and this administration to push BP, who is the responsible party, to collect more data on air quality impacts and also on the dispersants issues that we discussed earlier.

The dispersants are an issue of great concern. The science on it is very tricky, because oil is definitely more toxic than the dispersant. Dispersants biodegrade faster than the oil, so the oil will be around longer than dispersants. However, we do know there are some chemicals in dispersants that are of concern, and there’s not a lot of information on that. I mean, it turns out that Corexit, which is manufactured by a company that actually BP owns, so there’s an interesting conflict of interest there, and —-

AMY GOODMAN: Nalco.

ALBERT HUANG: —- we’ve asked repeatedly for release of the ingredients of Corexit, that’s being used, and it’s been claimed that there is — these are industry proprietary information they cannot release. And so, I see — the issue with the dispersants is actually a very common issue we see with chemicals in the way that chemicals are regulated. EPA regularly approves chemicals, such as Corexit, as an approved dispersant, where there’s been very little testing and very little information made available to the public.

AMY GOODMAN: It’s also quite astounding that it is banned by Britain, it is not allowed in the North Sea, and BP is British Petroleum. So the headquarters of BP right there in London, they know well that it has been banned there. But I’m amazed that you keep saying BP should be monitoring and just do a better job of monitoring the air and monitoring the effects of these chemicals. Isn’t that the role of the US government?

ALBERT HUANG: No, I wasn’t saying that BP should do it. I’m just saying that, you know, first, they are the responsible party. And that means that, you know, whether they’re doing it, whether they’re paying for independent monitoring to be done, I think the key for the public to have confidence in what’s going on is to have independent monitoring, monitoring which people can trust and have confidence in. If the government does it, that’s one thing. But from what we know right now of what’s going on on the water, what’s going on with the dispersants, that has all been information provided by BP to the government agencies. And it’s very difficult for public to have confidence or full information when it’s not an independent source giving the information. And so, the call has been on the government to push for BP — to either do the monitoring themselves or to push BP to provide independent monitoring.

AMY GOODMAN: You’ve written a letter to the government. What are you calling for?

ALBERT HUANG: On Friday, we’ll be sending a letter to the Department of Labor, OSHA as well, and EPA, calling for them to do several things. One is to actually enforce the worker protection standards within OSHA regulations that require personal protective equipment, which I said before includes gloves, overalls, boots and, in some cases, respirators. And we’re also asking to enforce the Respiratory Protection Standards, which require that in workplaces where you have inhalated risk, that the employer needs to develop a respiratory plan to protect their workers and then provide the protection. That’s the first thing.

The second thing we’re asking for is that OSHA and NIOSH, the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, do some medical monitoring and evaluations, so when workers are coming back from their long shifts, they’re serving them and saying, "What are the health experiences that you’ve seen?" and we’re keeping track of what’s happening. I mean, we have — right now it sounds like seven or more go in the hospital. I’m sure there are many more that are having health problems that haven’t gone actually to the hospital, where it got that bad. That shouldn’t be the standard that we hold to protect our workers.

Thirdly, what we’re asking for, too, is that OSHA, NIOSH and BP provide and make public all the information they have regarding health risks potentially to workers. And then, finally, we’re asking that EPA work with OSHA to require more independent air monitoring, so we know what’s going on.

JUAN GONZALEZ: One other question, we’ve heard from the — a fisherman, but they are essentially contracted employees. There must be hundreds of people working at the actual site of the spill on all those ships and on the drilling platforms that are probably even more exposed, because that’s the source of where the oil is coming from. Has there been any reports of what’s happening to those workers?

ALBERT HUANG: And that’s exactly, I think, why we want the medical surveillance. I mean, there is a lack of information. And a part of that is the inability of BP to provide that, and also of the government agencies not stepping up to collect that information. And that’s kind of — that’s what we’re asking for in this letter, which we’re going to be sending out to Hilda Solis, the Secretary of the Department of Labor, on Friday.

AMY GOODMAN: Albert Huang, we want to thank you for being with us, environmental justice attorney at the Natural Resources Defense Council.

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