BP Withholds Oil Spill Facts — and Government Lets It

Published on
by
the McClatchy Newspapers

BP Withholds Oil Spill Facts — and Government Lets It

by
Marisa Taylor and Renee Schoof

BP workers stand on a barge loaded with absorption material on the banks of the Mississippi River off the coast of Louisiana May 18, 2010. (REUTERS/Hans Deryk)

WASHINGTON - BP, the company in charge of the rig
that exploded last month in the Gulf of Mexico, hasn't publicly
divulged the results of tests on the extent of workers' exposure to
evaporating oil or from the burning of crude over the gulf, even though
researchers say that data is crucial in determining whether the
conditions are safe.

Moreover, the company isn't monitoring the extent
of the spill and only reluctantly released videos of the spill site
that could give scientists a clue to the amount of the oil in gulf.

BP's
role as the primary source of information has raised questions about
whether the government should intervene to gather such data and to
publicize it and whether an adequate cleanup can be accomplished without
the details of crude oil spreading across the gulf.

Under pressure from senators, BP released four videos Tuesday, but
it hasn't agreed to better monitoring.

The company 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."

Much of the
worker exposure data is being collected by contractors hired by BP.

Toby
Odone, a BP spokesman, said the company is sharing the data with
"legitimate interested parties," which include government agencies and
the private companies assisting in the cleanup. When asked whether the
information can be released publicly, he responded, "Why would one do
it? Any parties with a legitimate interest can have access to it."

Joseph
T. Hughes Jr., the director of the worker education training program
for the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, said he
didn't think "anyone has seen much of that data at all."

"The hard
part about it is that in a normal response, when the government is
doing this, there might be more transparency on the data," Hughes said.
"In this case, when you have BP making the decisions and collecting the
data it's harder to have that transparency."

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.

So far, the
government has been slow to press BP to release its data and permit
others to evaluate the extent of the crisis.

"I think that one of
the lessons learned here is whether the federal government should have
more of a role in the response and not leave that decision-making in the
hands of the responsible parties," said Hughes, whose institute was one
of the first to raise questions about air quality at the World Trade
Center site in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks.

A recent report
in the New England Journal of Medicine found that many Sept. 11 rescue
workers still suffer from impaired lung function.

The Center for
Toxicology and Environmental Health, one of BP's consultants, is
collecting air quality samples over the coast and the water.

"It's
fair to say that a majority of the air monitoring along the shoreline
is being done by our organization," said Glenn Millner, a partner with
the CTEH and a principal toxicologist.

Gina Solomon, a medical
doctor and a senior scientist with the Natural Resources Defense
Council, said her environmental organization has been pressing the
government to release the data, after hearing reports of fishermen
concerned about exposure.

"The fact that OSHA is saying that it's
safe is important because they have access to data that we don't have,"
she said. "It's sort of awkward to have to take that on face value given
the fact that there are fishermen who feel they are getting sick."

The
Environmental Protection Agency is releasing shoreline data on its
website, but not information about the air quality workers encounter on
the water.

OSHA has access to that data and is monitoring it to
determine what type of equipment the workers should be issued and other
questions related to worker safety. So far, the air quality does not
require workers to receive respirators, Wingo said.

Millner said
that data as a matter of practice is shared only with the oil clean up
worker and the company overseeing the cleanup.

BP also has
exercised considerable control over how much is known about the amount
of oil gushing into the gulf.

Early on, the government estimated
that 210,000 gallons was being released daily. That estimate was based
on satellite observations of the water's surface.

The first look
at the oil coming out of the pipe on the sea floor was a video clip that
BP released last week in response to demands from reporters and others.
It caused a stir because some experts who analyzed it estimated that
the amount of oil pouring into the gulf was many times the government's
official estimate.

Sens. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., and Barbara Boxer,
D-Calif., on Monday asked BP on Monday to provide all available video
footage.

BP provided clips from several days of the spill on
Tuesday.

The clips, however, would still result only in rough
estimates because the oil flows at different rates at different times
and it's mixed with gas, said BP spokesman Mark Proegler.

The
company had no other equipment on the sea floor to monitor the amount of
the flow, and no plans to install any.

"We've said from the
beginning . . . it's difficult if not impossible to measure from the
source of the flow," Proegler said on Tuesday. BP's focus is stopping
the flow and keeping the oil away from shore, he said.

Jeff Short,
an oil pollution expert and former National Marine Fisheries Service
official who now works for the environmental group Oceana, said the
estimate based on surface observations was very imprecise, and that
looking at the flow rate from the pipe would be better.

"The
public has the right to see what harm the environment is exposed to, and
knowing the flow rate is fundamental to that," he said.

Judy
McDowell, the chair of the biology department and a senior scientist at
the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Massachusetts who's studied
many oil spills, said that in addition to knowing the amount of oil
flowing in, scientists also need to figure out how it's dispersing and
breaking down in order to know what effect it would have on living
organisms in the water.

Jane Lubchenco, the administrator of NOAA,
said in testimony to a Senate committee Tuesday said it was important,
but difficult to get a better estimate of the amount of oil. She said
that the Coast Guard planned to set up a team to get a better estimate.

Some
university researchers have been frustrated by the lack of data and the
refusal of federal agencies to press BP to collect detailed
measurements from the broken well pipe or fully assess what might be
happening underwater.

"We have been screaming from day one for
data,'' said Peter Ortner, a fisheries biologist at the University of
Miami.

Ortner also said that NOAA had been slow to consider
sub-surface effects and didn't deploy the sophisticated gear that might
help surveying for submerged oil.

Lubchenco said Monday that the
agency had been discussing ideas about more sensing gear on the ocean
floor but said "the priority at this point is to stop the flow.''

Meanwhile,
an analysis of satellite imagery by the University of Miami's
Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science, reported Tuesday
that the spill has grown to more than 7,500 square miles, or about the
size of New Jersey.

(Curtis Morgan of The
Miami Herald contributed to this article.)

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