WASHINGTON - Plans to burn hundreds of thousands of gallons of oil from BP's blown-out well are raising new questions about the health and safety of the thousands of workers on rigs and vessels near the spill site.
BP and the federal government are in new territory once again in dealing with the nation's worst environmental disaster: There has never been such a huge flaring of oil in the Gulf of Mexico, or possibly anywhere.
The incineration of such huge amounts of oil combined with the black clouds of smoke already wafting over the gulf waters from controlled burns of surface oil create pollution hazards for the estimated 2,000 people working in the area.
Dozens of rigs and ships are clustered in the area around the spill site.
The Discoverer Enterprise, the main recovery ship, is recovering as much as 15,000 barrels of oil a day through a pipe from the wellhead. A second vessel, the Q4000, is being prepared to pull up more oil and burn it. Experts say it could be burning 10,000 barrels, or 420,000 gallons, a day.
Dr. Phil Harber, a professor at the University of California, Los Angeles, said the burning oil could expose workers to toxic elements that might cause severe respiratory irritation, asthma attacks, and inflamed airways depending on how the burns are handled. Burning oil is a fairly common method of relieving pressure in refinery operations, he said.
"But the magnitude is a concern," said Harber, who is also the chief of UCLA's division of occupational and environmental medicine. The other worry, he said, is if the wind carries off the thick clouds, "there are hundreds of ships in the area," he said.
EPA's stationary monitors and mobile laboratories are checking for pollutants from the spill but have found air-quality levels for ozone and particulates that are normal on the coast for this time of year. The agency has reported that it also has found low levels of chemicals from the oil that produce odors and can cause short-term effects such as headaches or nausea.
Diane Bailey, a senior scientist with the Natural Resources Defense Council, questioned why the Coast Guard decided to allow the oil to be burned. "Maybe there's just such a logistical challenge in getting it onshore," she said, ". . . but the possible acute health problems should be of a greater concern."
The Q4000 is expected to begin operations at the end of next week, Coast Guard Adm. Thad Allen, the government's spill coordinator, said Friday. The Q4000 has a crew of 122.
In addition, there are two rigs digging relief wells that eventually will attempt to shut off the gushing oil.
Allen said that once BP makes improvements and increases its capacity to capture the oil, it no longer would burn oil from the Q4000. However, those improvements are not expected until July.
The new burning comes as BP's plan to protect workers fighting the massive oil spill has come under criticism for exposing them to higher levels of toxic chemicals than generally accepted practices permit. Moreover, BP is not required to give workers respirators, to evacuate them from danger zones, or to take other precautions until conditions are more dangerous.
BP said Friday that its board of directors would meet Monday to discuss whether to suspend the company's dividend to pay spill-related claims.
The executives say they are financially able to pay the dividend, which amounts to $10.5 billion a year.
But they acknowledge the political pressures to set aside at least the next dividend while the amount of oil being released into the gulf is assessed and the growing federal fines can be estimated.
"There are ongoing discussions, there are lots of options on the table," said Andrew Gowers,
a BP spokesman.
Among options considered by the board, BP officials say, are suspending or cutting the dividend for
one quarter, paying the dividend in shares of stock, or issuing an IOU for delayed payment.
The BP board will discuss
a strategy for a meeting between the company and President Obama on Wednesday. No decision is expected until then.
- N.Y. Times News Service