BP Cleanup Crews, Refinery Workers, Fenceline Communities and the Effects of API-Funded Science

“In toxicology there is a saying, 'Dose is everything, ’” explained Dr. Robert Cox, expert witness for BP.

As Phase III of the BP Trial, which will determine how much BP pays in Clean Water Act fines for the 2010 oil disaster, wrapped up a few days ago and now awaits Judge Barbier’s ruling, testimony showed the two sides have multiple points of disagreement. One is exactly how much exposure, or as Dr. Cox refers to it, how big of a dose of certain oil and dispersant-related chemicals is safe and when do those levels begin to effect human health. 

Although many cleanup workers and coastal residents say they were made sick by BP’s 2010 disaster, BP’s attorneys used Cox’s testimony to try to convince the judge otherwise. Cox chose his words carefully, not denying that toxins were in the air, but making a point to say that the levels, or doses, were too low to have affected human health.

Much of his testimony was dedicated to refuting testimony given the day before by Dr. Richard Clapp, an expert witness for the United States. Clapp, like Cox, agreed that toxins were present in the air.  But unlike Cox, Clapp was of the opinion that health effects could and did still occur from those same levels.  

“There are some particular exposures, like, to benzene, which is a known human carcinogen, where there’s no safe level,” he testified

In another oil industry safety-related issue, the United Steelworkers Association (USW), including roughly 5,000 workers in refineries and chemical plants along the Texas Gulf Coast, walked off the job after union negotiations broke down on February 1.  According to union representatives, a main reason for the strike, the largest in 35 years, was the continuing lack of industry-wide safety culture.  

"This is not about wages, honestly," said Local 12-591 president Steve Garey.  "We are primarily considering the risk that our own members are exposed to within the plant, but that’s not where our concerns end. The risk is increased to members inside the plant, nearby communities, and the environment." 

Photo: USW Local 13-227 strikes in Houston, Texas. Source: USW

Those inside refineries and their fenceline neighbors have good reason to worry about their safety. Workers handle highly toxic substances in some of the most dangerous conditions on the planet.  

Yudith Nieto is surrounded by refineries and other petrochemical facilities. She lives in Houston’s Manchester neighborhood, and worries about her safety and that of her neighbors. “If the safety needs of the workers within the refineries are not being met, then it makes me wonder, what hope do we have as a fenceline community?"

Deadly refinery accidents, including BP’s 2005 Texas City refinery explosion, which killed 15 workers, injured more than 170, and exposed nearby residents to 538,000 pounds of toxic chemicals, have resulted in numerous fines and promises to change. Still, USW International Vice President Gary Beevers, head of the union's National Oil Bargaining Program, says serious concerns remain about the industry’s unwillingness to learn from it’s mistakes, 

"This work stoppage is about onerous overtime; unsafe staffing levels; dangerous conditions the industry continues to ignore; the daily occurrences of fires, emissions, leaks and explosions that threaten local communities without the industry doing much about it.” 

BP cleanup workers, coastal residents, refinery and offshore workers, and fenceline communities have good reason to question just how committed the oil industry really is to protecting their health and safety.  

As Clapp pointed out in his testimony, studies have shown benzene, one of the many hazardous chemicals found in oil and petrochemical refineries, to have no safe exposure limit.  

For more than 70 years, the oil industry has known about the research, which found benzene to be “so potent that there is no safe exposure level.” 

Yet according to documents recently released by the Center for Public Integrity, the American Petroleum Institute (API), a petroleum industry trade organization whose members include BP, Shell, Chevron, Marathon, Exxon Mobil and many more, has spent the better part of three decades and $35 million to “protect member company interests” by questioning that finding and by casting doubt on other research linking benzene to certain types of cancer.

An email outlining the API’s research strategy reads, “The scientific research program developed over the years by API's Benzene Task Force is designed to protect member company interests by developing strong scientific information on key benzene risk issues. This data, applicable across environmental media, has use in advocacy, risk management, litigation and risk communication.”

While an API-funded study on benzene-exposed workers in Shanghai was still in it’s early proposal stages, and prior to the actual research being concluded, documents indicate the results may have already been a foregone conclusion.  On the benefits of the study, API correspondence indicates it was, “anticipated that the results of this research will establish that 1) ambient levels of benzene exposure do not pose a risk of leukemia or other blood diseases to the general public, and 2) that adherence to current occupational limits do not create an unacceptable risk to workers. Such findings would significantly ameliorate further regulatory initiatives in the areas of point source emissions and motor gasoline reformulation.” 

The API’s efforts to prevent its member corporations from being held accountable for exposure-related illnesses didn’t stop there. When non-industry research showed workers exposed to benzene in two Ohio facilities had higher rates of certain cancers, the trade organization became concerned about possible implementation of tighter regulations and the possibility the U.S. EPA and other regulatory agencies would lower acceptable exposure limits for benzene. Tighter regulations equate to increased expenses for oil companies, lower profits, and the potential that industry corporations could face expensive lawsuits and legal actions that could require compensation to sickened workers and community members. 

But instead of taking corrective action to ensure the safety of their neighbors and their workforce, the API contracted with product defense companies. They could not refute that workers were sick and dying but instead worked to show those workers had actually been exposed to much higher levels of benzene than originally thought. Again, it was all about the dose.  

Additionally, the API wanted to “provide strong scientific support for the lack of a risk of leukemia or other hematological disease at current ambient benzene concentrations to the general population.“ Hoping to “establish that adherence to current occupational exposure limits (in the range of 1 – 5 ppm) do not create significant risk to workers exposed to benzene.”

Thus API’s member corporations, many of whom operate the refineries where workers are now striking, would be protected from having to spend money on upgrading equipment, reducing emissions and implementing other safety procedures at their refineries.  Their profits would be protected at the expense of safety.

Another document says to “Publish, publish, publish”. Getting the results published allows scientists and expert witnesses to refer to the studies during litigation, which helps industry defend itself against lawsuits by sick and dying refinery workers – as well as lawsuits brought about by BP’s cleanup workers and coastal residents who say they were exposed in the wake of the Deepwater Horizon explosion. 

Edward Foster, who worked on the BP cleanup and has had pneumonia, breathing difficulties and other health ailments since the disaster, described working cleanup. “The barge was up about chest high or maybe higher. We’d lift those bags and pass them up and we took it right in the face - the water and oil dripped out of those bags and fell right back down on us.” 

He scoffed when asked about safety gear. “They gave us safety goggles and a box of Tyvek suits, but we couldn’t even get them on – all they sent were smalls and mediums and we’re both big guys. The supervisors said to make the best of it and we did try to put them on, just to cover us up, but the suits just ripped to shreds.”

During cleanup, the non-profit Louisiana Environmental Action Network raised money to give fishermen and others working cleanup respirators and other protective gear not provided to them by BP. Some fishermen reported they were threatened with termination if they used the gear. Many felt BP was more concerned with protecting its image than with protecting its workers. 

According to striking workers and some fenceline community members, oil companies show little or no regard for the health and safety of their workers or for the well-being of their neighbors. Both say the oil industry’s lax safely culture puts workers and communities across the nation in harm’s way.

"Our local union has lost 14 members in 16 years. Quite frankly, we’re tired of our coworkers being killed and being subjected to this risk," Garey says

Their neighbors are also tired of the risk.

"The challenges that we face as fenceline communities not only effect our health, but also our safety. As vulnerable communities we need all the support we can get and sometimes that support may come only from the workers inside the facilities,” explained Nieto, highlighting her community’s reliance on individual workers, as opposed to company safety culture, to keep her fenceline community informed and safe.  

“This industry is the richest in the world and can afford to make the changes we offered in bargaining," said USW International Vice President of Administration Tom Conway. “The problem is that oil companies are too greedy to make a positive change in the workplace and they continue to value production and profit over health and safety, workers and the community.”