Letter from the Director

John R. Balmes

For several months many of us were horrified by the environmental devastation wrought by the oil continually flowing from the uncapped BP well in the Gulf of Mexico.  Images of blackened birds, turtles and beaches were as stirring as the testimony of impacted coastal residents.  While most people were paying attention to the ecologic and economic consequences of the largest accidental marine oil spill in history, the occupational safety and health issues created by this catastrophe were largely unnoticed by the public.

The Deepwater Horizon drilling rig explosion on April 20, 2010, killed 11 platform workers and injured 17 others.  Work-related fatalities still occur in this country at an alarming rate.  The preliminary count for US fatal work injuries in 2009 was 4,340, down from a total of 5,214 in 2008. Decreased employment due to the recession, especially in the construction industry, is thought to have played a major role in the lower number of fatal work injuries in 2009, continuing a trend that began in 2007.  Natural resources and mining remains one of the industrial sectors with the highest risk of fatal injury; 15% of the deaths reported in 2009 were in this sector. In my view, any number of occupational fatalities is too many because all could be prevented. 

Preliminary reports of the events leading to the Deepwater Horizon explosion suggest corners were cut by corporate entities involved in the drilling of the Macondo well that put workers on the rig at risk.  There had been previous spills and fires on the Deepwater Horizon, including one reported in 2008 to the Minerals Management Service (MMS) where 77 people were evacuated. The platform listed and began to sink after a section of pipe was accidentally removed from the platform's ballast system.  By the time of the explosion, the Deepwater Horizon well operation was already running 5 weeks late.  Internal BP documents show engineers had concerns as early as 2009 that the metal casing BP wanted to use might collapse under high pressure.  In March 2010, the rig experienced problems that included drilling mud falling into the undersea oil formation, sudden gas releases, a pipe falling into the well and at least three occasions of the blowout preventer leaking fluid.  After the rig sank, the rig's mechanic told CNN that the well had problems for months and that the drill repeatedly “kicked” due to high gas pressure.

Preliminary findings from BP's internal investigation released by the House Committee on Energy and Commerce indicated several serious warning signs in the hours just prior to the explosion.  Equipment readings indicated gas bubbling into the well, which could signal an impending blowout.  A BP official onboard the rig directed the crew to replace the drilling mud, which is used to keep the well's pressure down, with lighter seawater even though the rig's chief driller protested.  As reported by CNN, workers on the rig understood that they could get fired for raising safety concerns that might delay drilling. A House Energy and Commerce Committee statement in June 2010 noted that in a number of cases leading up to the explosion, BP appears to have chosen riskier procedures to save time or money, sometimes against the advice of its staff or contractors.

It now appears that fires and accidents on oil rigs in the Gulf are fairly frequent.  A Mariner Energy-owned production platform, Vermilion, situated in the Gulf of Mexico 100 miles off the Louisiana coast, exploded and caught on fire on September 2, 2010.  Thirteen workers were occupying the platform at the time of the explosion and leapt into the surrounding water in flotation suits.  All of the workers were rescued from the ocean, with one person sustaining injuries.  According to the Los Angeles Times, the Vermilion platform was the scene of a drilling accident in 2008 that resulted in a serious injury to a crew member.  The Times also reported that Mariner Energy had been involved in more than a dozen offshore accidents in the Gulf over the last 4 years, including at least four fires and a well blowout.

According to the National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration there are nearly 4,000 active oil and gas platforms in the Gulf of Mexico off the southern US coast.  Accidents appear to be a regular feature of offshore oil production.  The National Wildlife Federation recently released a report claiming more than 1,400 offshore-oil-related accidents occurred from 2000 to 2007, killing 41 people.

A bipartisan effort to encourage deepwater oil drilling in the Gulf of Mexico has been evident over the past two decades.  The Deepwater Royalty Relief Act, signed into law by former President Bill Clinton in 1995, was intended to encourage natural gas and oil development in the Gulf in waters at least 200 meters deep by offering royalty relief on qualifying natural gas and oil lease sales.  Similar royalty relief incentives have been offered since 2001 to encourage production from wells drilled greater than 4,500 meters total depth on new leases located in shallow waters (less than 200 meters). In 2004, the MMS began to offer similar incentives for existing leases.  Former President George W. Bush signed into law the Energy Policy Act of 2005, which includes a provision to increase incentives further on production of deep natural gas in the shallow waters of the Gulf of Mexico.  It has been alleged that the MMS presided over a “wild west” approach to oil exploration, encouraged by a Bush administration pro-oil policy to new Obama administration incentives for oil companies to hurry up their exploration of leased lots – the so-called "use it or lose it" policy.

The MMS received billions of dollars a year in royalties from the industry it was supposed to regulate.  Staff of the MMS routinely took jobs with oil companies after leaving the agency and oil company executives were appointed to managerial positions in the MMS.  The agency relied on industry expertise for environmental impact and assessment data that go into approving drilling permits.  Although mismanagement and lax supervision of offshore oil drilling is not the whole story of why the Deepwater Horizon disaster happened, it is clearly a contributing factor.  One can only hope that the Obama administration's decision to create the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation and Enforcement will bring more appropriate oversight.

A second less dramatic occupational health and safety issue raised by the Gulf oil spill is protection of the cleanup workers.  In an effort to control the extent of environmental damage from the spill, BP used chemical dispersants in unprecedented quantities.  The toxicity of these dispersants in terms of human health effects was not adequately documented.  Despite this, BP threatened to fire workers who wore respirators, even though their use was recommended by Louisiana state health authorities.  Eventually, the US Environmental Protection Agency mandated that BP use less toxic dispersants.

In the aftermath of this disastrous spill, we need to work to hold employers and OSHA accountable for worker safety.  Continuous efforts to improve conditions in dangerous industries like deep well oil drilling must be made.  A safety culture needs to be fostered such that it becomes unacceptable to cut procedural corners to save either time or money.  Worker lives are more important than either.  We also need to foster the precautionary principle regarding worker exposures to chemicals of unknown toxicity.  Workers wearing respiratory protective gear in such situations should not be threatened with the loss of their jobs.

Census of Fatal Occupational Injuries. August 19, 2010; [cited 2010 Sep 09 ] Available from: http://www.bls.gov/news.release/cfoi.toc.htm

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