May 19, 2010 Liz Borkowski, MPH 8Comment

It’s only right that BP bear the cleanup costs in the Gulf – but their cleanup responsibilities shouldn’t interfere with federal agencies doing their jobs. Two recent news accounts paint a disturbing picture of federal employees taking orders from the multinational corporation that’s turned an already hard-hit part of our coastline into a disaster zone.

McClatchy Newspapers’ Marisa Taylor and Renee Schoof report that BP has released little information about how much oil is gushing out of its damaged well, and it will not make public the results of air sampling for cleanup workers. As Elizabeth Grossman noted last week, both the oil and the chemical dispersants used in cleanup can present health hazards, so it’s important to conduct air sampling (as well as other measurements) and use the data to inform decisions about worker protections.

Taylor and Schoof report:

[BP] also hasn’t publicly released air sampling for oil spill workers although Occupational Safety and Health Administration, the agency in charge of monitoring compliance with worker safety regulations, is relying on the information and has urged it to do so.

“It is not ours to publish,” said Dean Wingo, OSHA’s assistant regional administrator who oversees Louisiana. “We are working with (BP) and encouraging them to post the data so that it is publicly available.”

So, the agency that’s supposed to be in charge of worker health and safety can only “encourage” BP to release data that has a direct bearing on the health of cleanup workers and volunteers. Why isn’t OSHA conducting air sampling itself? Or if they don’t want to do it, maybe the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health could.

Another troubling report comes from CBS News’ Kelly Cobiella, who went with a camera crew to shoot footage of an oil-coverage beach. “A boat of BP contractors with two Coast Guard officers on board told us to turn around under threat of arrest,” she says. The footage shows a man leaning out of the boat, saying, “This is BP’s rules, not ours.”

Cobiella says that Coast Guard officials are “looking into the incident,” and I hope they find that the officers on that boat were mistaken in suggesting that BP calls the shots about who can film in the area. But if the Coast Guard’s role is to enforce the rules that BP decides on, that’s a bad situation.

Taylor and Schoof explain that this disaster response isn’t following the usual playbook:

Unlike the response to other past national disasters such as Hurricane Katrina where the government was in charge, BP has been designated as the “responsible party” under federal law and is overseeing much of the response to the spill. The government is acting more as an adviser.

It doesn’t seem right that the “responsible party” status would confer so much authority on BP. When a mine disaster happens, the mine operator is the responsible party, but they have to get Mine Safety and Health Administration permission to do anything – even something like drilling a borehole to let toxic gases escape.

It seems that someone with a lot of authority must have decided that in addition to its financial responsibility, BP would get to be in charge in the Gulf. Did someone in the White House make this call? If so, it was the wrong one. Our federal agencies are the ones tasked by Congress to protect our health and environment. BP shouldn’t be doing their jobs.

8 thoughts on “Who Put BP in Charge?

  1. So, the agency that’s supposed to be in charge of worker health and safety can only “encourage” BP to release data that has a direct bearing on the health of cleanup workers and volunteers

    This kind of thing always disturbs the hell out of me. I don’t want to sound alarmist, but it’s far too close to a dystopian corporate-ocracy for my liking.

  2. “What’s good for BP is good for the country” is kind of what got us into the situation. Maybe the think the same logic will get us out.

    Besides, it should be legal since I’m pretty sure the US Constitution starts with “We the corporations of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Profits, insure domestic Trade Barriers, provide for the Quarterly Bonuses, promote the general Stock Markets, and secure the Blessings of Income to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.”

    At least I’m not cynical about the situation!

  3. Let’s see: BP won’t let reporters take pictures of the beaches, or of the oil slick floating on the Gulf; they refuse to allow scientists near the wellhead to make better estimates of the rate of gush; and apparently they’ve been using a dispersant more toxic and less effective than others, solely because it’s made by a company in which they have a stake.

    And of course in their public pronouncements they consistently minimize the seriousness of the problem.

    I think it’s time for the government to take over this recovery operation.

  4. This has bothered me too. So much of the message the government has been putting out is “Rest assured, BP will pay the cleanup coses.”

    Well that’s great. It should go without saying. But it’s completely unimportant next to the main issue, which is stopping the spill and cleaning it up. Once that’s done, then worry about putting the financial screws to BP. I’d rather have clean beaches and taxpayers potentially on the hook rather than dirty beaches with BP writing the checks.

    That shouldn’t be the choice, but if it is then I still prefer the clean beaches.

  5. FYI:

    they refuse to allow scientists near the wellhead to make better estimates of the rate of gush

    BP refuses to allow scientists near the wellhead because any scientist who got anywhere near it would be mashed to a fine pulp. The pressure 5,000 feet down is enough to crush a submarine.

    “Rest assured, BP will pay the cleanup coses.” All the way to the 75 million dollar limit

    No, BP has to pay 100 percent of the cleanup costs. The $70 million limit is for damages to businesses, property, health, etc. (There’s a move in Congress to raise the limit to $10 billion.) BP has sworn up and down it will pay “all legitimate claims,” regardless of the limit.

    BP did release a video of the leak, maybe not realising that it can be used to estimate how much oil is gushing out.

    The gummint forced BP to release the video from the live undersea cameras specifically so that it could be used to estimate the oil flow. BP hadn’t done so on its own presumably because it would prefer not to have a good estimate of the flow for legal reasons; if the amount is uncertain, that would be to BP’s advantage in defending itself from lawsuits.

  6. I’m confused about what are the responsibilities of the federal government in the BP oil spill in the Gulf. There are three major agencies involved: the US Coast Guard, the US Department of the Interior and the US EPA. What is each agency’s jurisdiction? Which agency should be in overall charge?

  7. There are definitely some issues of jurisdictional overlap. From what I understand from the Exxon Valdez disaster, the White House needs to decide which agency should take the lead – but I haven’t heard an announcement to that effect.

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