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Oil Worker Safety Hearing Yields Real Concerns

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Ravi BakhruOil rig worker safety has been in the news a lot lately. Nearly every major media outlet and blogger in the entire Nation has directed its attention to arguably the worst environmental disaster in our history. As a result, the headlines and attention have been comprehensive, ranging from BP’s efforts in responding the disaster, to the safety of oil rig workers and those commissioned to help clean up the coastline.

To that end, The House Education and Labor Committee held a hearing on Wednesday to discuss worker safety oversight from the oil rig to the shoreline. Pointedly, Chairman George Miller tasked the hearing with determining whether the current regulatory framework is appropriate and effective, specifically referencing the coordination and delegation of oversight between various federal agencies. Before the committee were representatives from the Coast Guard, NIOSH, the DOL, and BOE (formerly MMS).

Major Points From The Hearing:

Whistleblower Protection. Chairman Miller at one point asked whether workers on these rigs had the benefit of whistleblower protection to provide an avenue by which they could report dangerous conditions. While OSHA provides whistleblower protection, it is clear that the agencies responsible for worker safety oversight do not have a process by which such complaints can be processed. What’s even more startling is that OSHA, the agency responsible for enforcing whistleblower statutes, has no jurisdiction where many of these rigs operate. OSHA’s jurisdiction ends 3 miles outside of the coast line, where the US Coast Guard takes over, and what became clear during this hearing is that the US Coast Guard and MMS/BOE do not have legislation in place for whistleblower protection.

“Who’s In Charge?” Ranking Republican John Kline started with a question that seemed to be a topic members were confused with. At one point the Congressman compared the current system of oversight to the lack of coordination in the intelligence community immediately after 9/11. On a related issue, the Committee seemed to gloss over the fact that the Coast Guard and BOE had a memo of understanding between them, distributing inspections over specific items on board rigs. Although the organizations meet quarterly to review their inspections, I can’t help look at this as wholly inefficient. Now, this doesn’t necessarily apply to an accident response framework. Rear Admiral Kevin Cook from the Coast Guard made it clear that the Coast Guard’s Federal On Scene Coordinator was doing a tremendous job coordinating the help from all federal agencies at the accident site. Credit should be given in this regard.

Staggering Deficiencies. Committee members asked in several different ways whether the agencies before them had the necessary resources to perform their oversight functions and the resounding answer was in the negative. David Michaels, representing OSHA, was asked to expand on a comment made during a Senate hearing explained that their resources were barely sufficient to handle their present functions, let alone take on new inspections of offshore drill sites. Doug Slitor explained his agency had a total of 56 inspectors (some with purely administrative and supervisory responsibilities) in the Gulf of Mexico for 3500 site inspections every year.

Safety Systems Management. The Committee made it very clear they consider OSHA to be the experts when it comes to safety oversight, and who would disagree with them? Sure, OSHA has their own problems as Mr. Michaels pointed out, when it comes to worker safety OSHA has the framework in place to broaden their scope if need be. Of particular concern was the current system in place, which at the moment is largely voluntary. Not only voluntary, Chairman Miller also noted the framework was largely due to suggestions from the oil industry itself. It seems clear that many are not pleased with the oversight framework currently in place, and want to see changes made. The phrase “like a duck” kept jumping out as the camera swung over to Mr. Slitor’s responses. Though he remained calm, I imagine his legs were churning furiously underwater.

We don’t yet know what caused the explosion itself, and perhaps we will never truly know. But the fact remains, something went wrong aboard that oil rig leading to the deaths of 11 workers. Hearings are a good start, but when you see problems in communications and standards, it’s time to act. Committee members repeatedly stated the need to ensure an efficient and protective system before the next disaster. I sincerely hope they live up to that.

About The Author: Ravi Bakhru is a third year law student at George Washington University. He currently works as an intern for Workplace Fairness, and has an interest in pursuing employee rights law in the future. To get in touch with Ravi, you can email him at Ravi.Bakhru@gmail.com.

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American Wind Turbines Sound Like Freedom

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Leo GerardThe sound that American wind turbines produce as their giant, breeze-propelled blades whip around is a distinctive: Neh-neh-neh-neh-neh-neh.

The anticipation is that those energy-generating, whirling arms would create a whooshing sound. And maybe they do in some countries. But here, in America, they echo the almost melodic taunt of a schoolyard victor — Neh-neh-neh-neh-neh-neh: You can’t get me.

That’s because American wind turbines are the manifestation of freedom from foreign oil. The more American wind turbines, the fewer barrels of oil America must import to meet its energy needs. And American-built wind turbines help propel the nation out of the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression by generating good-paying American jobs.

President Obama talked about the ugly results of the nation’s refusal to solve its dependency problem – its guzzling of 20 percent of the world’s oil while controlling less than two percent of the world’s reserves. America’s combination of oil addiction and lack of adequate oil resources enslaves the nation to foreign sources, often foreign sources hostile to America. A generation ago, former President Jimmy Carter warned of the consequences of this abusive relationship as Iran held 52 Americans hostages and long lines formed at gasoline stations during a season of shortages.

Carter installed on the White House roof a symbol of the solution — solar panels. His successor there, Ronald Reagan, pulled them down. And the nation went on its merry way forgetting the once-empty gasoline stations and ignoring its ever-increasing foreign dependency – even as the Exxon Valdez mucked Prince William Sound two months after Reagan left office.

Here’s what Obama said about that wasted opportunity:

“And for decades, we have failed to act with the sense of urgency that this challenge requires. Time and again, the path forward has been blocked – not only by oil industry lobbyists, but also by a lack of political courage and candor.

The consequences of our inaction are now in plain sight. Countries like China are investing in clean energy jobs and industries that should be right here in America. Each day, we send nearly $1 billion of our wealth to foreign countries for their oil. And today, as we look to the Gulf, we see an entire way of life being threatened by a menacing cloud of black crude.”

The explosion of the Deep Water Horizon oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico, the deaths of 11 workers, the uncontrolled gushing of more than 50,000 barrels of oil a day into the sea, and the mucking of brown pelicans and four states’ coastlines have given Obama the ability to take up Carter’s righteous clean energy campaign. And Obama accepted the challenge:

“The tragedy unfolding on our coast is the most painful and powerful reminder yet that the time to embrace a clean energy future is now. Now is the moment for this generation to embark on a national mission to unleash America’s innovation and seize control of our own destiny.”

The president noted that wind turbines are being built in retrofitted factories that were once abandoned right here in America. That happened in Pennsylvania. The wind turbine manufacturer Gamesa converted defunct mills into centers for wind turbine construction. And it cooperated with the United Steelworkers (USW) to provide good-paying union jobs.

That is the potential President Obama sees – independence from foreign sources and resurgence of America’s economy. It is the potential that the USW and the American Wind Energy Association (AWEA) pictured when they agreed earlier this month to work together to accelerate development and deployment of wind energy production in the U.S.

Like the Steelworkers, the national trade association of America’s wind industry believes the U.S. must move toward renewable energy sources and must construct them itself. U.S. Sen. Sherrod Brown of Ohio explained it simply when the USW and AWEA announced their partnership:

“We can’t replace our dependence on foreign oil with a dependence on Chinese-made wind turbines. It’s critical that American manufacturers have the resources to develop and deploy wind energy components. Clean energy will help America regain its leadership in manufacturing. We need to ensure American workers and manufacturers are building the clean energy components that will be used around the world.”

Obama called on Americans to “seriously tackle our addiction to fossil fuels.” But like any rehab program, success won’t come easily. Oil companies will continue to lobby against it. Swayed by their money, some politicians will oppose the legislation essential to encourage it.

But symbolic solar panels must remain on the White House roof this time. Renewable energy, as Obama said, enables America to shape its own destiny

The President urged the nation to free itself from its oil dependency now:

“As we recover from this recession, the transition to clean energy has the potential to grow our economy and create millions of jobs – but only if we accelerate that transition. Only if we seize the moment.”

This is the time for wind turbines. For solar. For hydro. This is the moment to hear increasing numbers of rotor blades whipping up the sound of independence.

Carpe diem.

About The Author: Leo Gerard is the United Steelworkers International President. Under his leadership, the USW joined with Unite -the biggest union in the UK and Republic of Ireland – to create Workers Uniting, the first global union. He has also helped pass legislation, including the landmark Canadian Westray Bill, making corporations criminally liable when they kill or seriously injure their employees or members of the public.

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Exploding Rig’s Operator Has History of Safety Violations

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Eleven oil workers are still missing after a massive explosion and fire late Tuesday night on an oil rig off the Louisiana coast in the Gulf of Mexico. The rig was under contract to BP Exploration and Production (BPEP).

Working In These Times has determined that BPEP has a history of safety violations, according to public records on file with the Minerals Management Service (MMS), the division of the federal Department of the Interior that oversees offshore drilling.

Penalties assessed to BPEP during the past decade include:

  • $41,000 for a “loss of well control.” MMS found that BPEP “failed to verify employees were trained to competently perform the assigned well control duties.”
  • $190,000 for an improperly installed fire diverter system. The lapse was discovered in the wake of a fire that damaged property and the environment.
  • $80,000 for bypassing relays for the Pressure Safety High/Low on four producing wells.
  • $70,000 for low pressure in the fire water system
ire boats battle the fire on April after a massive explosion on the offshore oil rig Deepwater Horizon, off the coast of Louisiana. The rigs contractor, BP Exploration and Production, has a history of safety violations.  (Photo by U.S. Coast Guard via Getty Images)
Photo by U.S. Coast Guard via Getty Images

The Tana Exploration Company, LLC was fined $190,000 after BPEP employees, working as contractors, bypassed the safety valves on a Tana rig. Investigators found that the rig failed to shut down in an emergency because the safety devices had been bypassed.

As a result, “[t]he pipeline experienced overpressure and the flange gasket ruptured allowing gas/condensate to escape,” according to MMS records.

The Wall Street Journal reports that BPEP’s parent company was fined $87 million for failing to make agreed upon safety upgrades to a Texas refinery after an explosion and fire that killed 15 people.

It is still unclear who was responsible for the April 20 explosion.

*This post originally appeared in Working in These Times on April 22, 2010. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Lindsay Beyerstein, a former InTheseTimes.com political reporter, is a freelance investigative journalist in New York City. Her work has appeared in Salon.com, Slate.com, AlterNet.org, The New York Press, The Washington Independent, RH Reality Check and other news outlets. Beyerstein writes a daily foreign affairs bulletin for the UN Foundation’s UN Dispatch website and covers healthcare for the Media Consortium. She is the winner of a 2009 Project Censored Award. She blogs at Majikthise.

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