Senate bill aims to tighten regulation of oil spill dispersants

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Reacting to health worries about chemical dispersants used in the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, Democratic Sen. Frank Lautenberg introduced legislation on Wednesday that would require the Environmental Protection Agency to test such compounds and disclose their ingredients.

“In the past three months, BP has dumped more than 1 million gallons of chemical dispersants into the Gulf,” the New Jersey lawmaker said in a statement. “Because these chemicals have not been fully tested, relief workers, families and wildlife up and down the coastline have been put in the middle of a dangerous science experiment.”

A similar measure is part of a broad energy bill in the House.

Lautenberg’s bill comes as some experts voice increasing concern about the long-term health effects of dispersants — and the spilled crude oil itself — on 46,000 Gulf cleanup workers. Eileen Senn, a former compliance officer with the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration and now an industrial hygiene consultant in Ewing, N.J., told the Center for Public Integrity that BP has exposed the workers to airborne chemicals linked to cancer, birth defects, permanent nerve damage and other serious conditions.

Many cleanup workers with the highest exposures over the past 100 days have not worn respirators because of false assurances by BP, said Senn, who is included in regular OSHA conference calls on the situation in the Gulf. “The workers were provided with respirators but they don’t wear them unless alarms go off,” she said. “Those alarms are set at very high levels [by BP].”

A BP spokesman declined to comment on Lautenberg’s bill, but defended the company’s efforts to protect cleanup workers. About 100 experts are monitoring air quality, which shows that workers on the beach don’t need respirators, the company said in a statement. If the need arises offshore, there are enough respirators for all workers on boats near the well. “Workers with health issues are encouraged to report their conditions without fear of reprisal,” the statement said.

An OSHA spokesman also declined to comment on the proposed legislation, saying that the agency had not yet reviewed the bill. “In general, OSHA is in favor of manufacturer transparency when it comes to any chemical ingredient that could pose harm to a worker,” the agency said in a statement. OSHA has conducted its own air monitoring in the Gulf and trained workers there to use respirators, it said. “OSHA has been in the field and on the boats to ensure that BP is doing everything possible to keep workers safe and healthy in the oil spill cleanup,” the statement said.

OSHA said its jurisdiction, however, extends only three nautical miles, with workers farther out being watched by the U.S. Coast Guard or the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation and Enforcement.

Lautenberg’s Senate bill, the Safe Dispersants Act, would mandate EPA testing for acute and chronic effects of dispersants used in oil spill emergencies and require the EPA to study if tougher regulations are needed. It would also ban dispersants “that cannot be proven better for the environment and health than natural or mechanical removal of oil,” and would require makers of dispersants to disclose specific ingredients.

More than 1.8 million gallons of surface and subsurface dispersants have been used in the BP spill. But these chemicals were not required to undergo long-term health or environmental testing and the exact ingredient concentrations of these dispersants have not been made available to the public.

In Senn’s view, the 200 million gallons of crude oil spilled since the April 20 explosion of BP’s Deepwater Horizon pose a far greater risk to workers than the dispersants. The oil, she said, contains solvents such as benzene, a known cause of leukemia, and other toxic substances.

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