Dispersants take a toll on workers, environment – for what?

Before we get into the story, let me alert you to the oil-spill-related protest Thursday morning, Aug. 5, in Chicago. Please participate if you can, and spread the word.

The New York Times reported on July 31 that BP kept dumping as much toxic dispersant into the Gulf of Mexico (pumped into the deep water and sprayed on the surface) as it wanted, even after the EPA ordered it to stop. (Mother Jones had already reported this back in May.) A sample of the report:

[Representative] Markey’s letter pointed to more than 74 exemption requests in 48 days, of which all but 10 were fully approved by the Coast Guard. In some cases, BP asked for permission after it had already applied the chemicals, the letter said. And in one case, the Coast Guard approved the use of a larger volume of dispersants than the company had applied for.

As an example of the conflicting numbers, Mr. Markey said that in a request filed on June 16, BP told the Coast Guard that in the previous several days it had used a maximum of 3,365 gallons of dispersant in a single day. But in e-mails to members of Congress giving updates on the spill response, the company said it had used 14,305 gallons of dispersant on June 12 and 36,000 gallons on June 13.”

What cannot be overlooked is how the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has been complicit with BP in deceiving the public about the threats to human health and the environment entailed by the use of nearly two million gallons of dispersant (that sounds less nasty than “industrial solvent,” doesn’t it?).

Hugh Kaufman, a whistleblower inside the EPA who has dedicated himself to pressuring it into actually protecting the environment and people, has been making the rounds—Democracy Now!, MSNBC,and so on—putting out the message that “EPA officials know that the chemicals present a threat to public health and the Gulf ecosystem and should be banned; they just don’t want to say so,” and is “deliberately downplaying the threat—and its own role in regulating the chemicals,” as a Mother Jones article put it. The article reports that at least 10 other EPA staff members, including toxicologists, have raised concerns about the dispersants.

Why downplay it? And why use the chemicals if they’re so harmful? Here are the reasons not to use them:

They’re harmful to the workers who use them. Even the manufacturer’s chemical safety data sheets say so.

They’re harmful to the environment. The full extent of the harm when used in the deep water is unknown. It’s a big experiment, proving once again what a sham the oil companies’ disaster prevention and response plans are.

They make it harder to collect the oil. Yes, we’ve all heard that they are supposed to keep the oil from hitting the beaches, but in fact when the oil is broken it up, it can’t be skimmed off the surface of the water. It may well be that large amounts of oil did not rise to the top because of the dispersants, but will be around to affect the ecosystem for years or decades to come.

So, what is the reason to use them? To cover up the extent of the spill. Just like the lies BP kept telling to make us think the oil and gas were not gushing from the sea floor as fast as they were, the dispersant keeps us from seeing how bad it is, and, according to Kaufman on Democracy Now!:

By hiding the amount of spill, BP is saving hundreds of millions, if not billions, of dollars in fines.”

That’s because the fines are in proportion to the amount of oil released, which BP has successfully hidden.

This is one more way that capitalism sacrifices workers at the altar of profits. The dispersants’ manufacturer warns that respirators should be used, yet BP banned cleanup workers from using them. Workers are becoming seriously ill from the toxins―how many workers is unclear, since neither BP nor the government is keeping track. Like 9/11 first responders, previous oil cleanup workers have been abandoned when the work made them sick. Shortly after the 1989 Exxon Valdez spill, specialists with the Laborers International Union warned Alaska’s labor department of risks of long-term organ damage to cleanup workers, but the state and federal governments failed to monitor them, while Exxon tried to cover up illnesses. As with the Gulf spill today, many fishermen turned to cleanup work in Alaska then because they could not fish in the contaminated waters. Those whose health was damaged by it were not compensated by Exxon. Since BP today threatens to fire workers who use protective gear, how much hope is there that they will take care of them after they are hurt?

Why ban protective gear? Apparently, it doesn’t look good. It would remind people that both the oil and the dispersant are toxic. While BP’s efforts to stop the leak have been bumbling and sometimes counter-productive, one area where they have steamed ahead with relentless efficiency is in plugging information leaks–well, except for the little matter of the clueless statements coming out of Tony “I’d like my life back” Hayward’s mouth. With the aid of the Coast Guard and state and local police forces and even flight controllers, they have frequently blocked reporters from areas where they could take photos or video showing the extent of the spill. That includes blocking many flights over the oil slicks in the Gulf. Similarly, after their Texas refinery explosion, they had local police confiscate film from a reporter and threaten him with arrest after he took photos of the refinery from a public place.

So please be sure to spread the word about the oil-spill-related protest Thursday morning, Aug. 5, in Chicago!

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2 Responses to Dispersants take a toll on workers, environment – for what?

  1. Terry Moon says:

    It’s important how you highlight damage done to workers. Too often, environmentalists view workers as part of the problem, rather than part of the solution and those who know how the system works the best because they are so often victims of it.

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