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's 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.
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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 toxins 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's 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, and those workers could have significant exposures and perhaps less protection because the exposures would be unanticipated," he said.
Harmful byproducts of burning the light crude flowing into the Gulf include fine particles; toxic gases such as sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxides and carbon monoxide; polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, or PAHs, which result from the incomplete burning of carbon-containing materials such as oil; and volatile organic compounds such as benzene toluene, ethylbenzene, and xylene.
EPA's stationary monitors and mobile laboratories are checking for pollutants from the spill, but have found that air quality levels for ozone and particulates that are normal on the coast for this time of year. The agency has reported that it's also 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.
"It seems like a no-brainer that you wouldn't want to do this," she said. "Maybe there's just such a logistical challenge in getting it onshore and getting it processed that they decided this is the cheapest, easiest thing to do. 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 coordinator on the spill, said Friday on MSNBC. 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. More than a dozen remotely operated vehicles are at work at the spill, a mile below the surface, and each requires its own platform where its controllers work.
Allen said at a briefing on Friday that typically there are 25 to 30 vessels working within two square miles around the wellhead.
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 aren't expected until July. BP then will install a floating pipe to extract the oil and bring in a larger production facility.
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 isn't required to give workers respirators, to evacuate them from danger zones, or to take other precautions until conditions are more dangerous.
Critics are questioning the quality of the company's plan as dozens of oil spill workers are becoming sick.
BP and government health and safety officials are monitoring air pollutants offshore and haven't found toxins that exceed federal standards. However, outside experts say the current levels still could pose health risks, and health and safety officials acknowledge that they are struggling with whether to require certain workers to wear respirators.
Residents in the coastal communities — especially babies and people with asthma or serious heart problems — also could be vulnerable to any possible toxins from the burn-off.
The EPA also monitors air quality from the air when burns are set off, said spokeswoman Adora Andy. A National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration P-3 "Hurricane Hunter" aircraft, configured as a chemistry lab, also measured pollutants from 200 feet to 1,000 feet above the surface.
"We're taking every step we can to ensure the health and safety of Gulf Coast residents and oil spill responders," EPA Administrator Lisa P. Jackson said in a statement Tuesday when NOAA announced the P-3 air check flights.
Richard Haut, a senior research scientist at the Houston Advanced Research Center, a nonprofit group that studies economic and environmental issues, said the flare that will burn the oil will be more controlled and burn more cleanly the fires set on the surface to get rid of oil. The surface fires are the main concern in terms of the health of workers in the area, he said.
Allen Friday said that about 90,000 barrels of oil have been burned so far on the surface in the 53 days since the Deepwater Horizon exploded.
Stephen Harris of Schlumberger Limited, the company that makes the equipment that will burn the oil, called the EverGreen, said that excess oil and gas have been burned off around the world for the past 40 years.
Kent Wells, a BP vice president, said the burner hasn't been used before in the Gulf of Mexico. Oil and gas will be burned separately. Wells said air would be injected into the oil so it would burn more cleanly.
(Mark Seibel contributed to this article.)
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