A North Little Rock firm is among the many contractors that have been brought in to help deal with the environmental catastrophe arising from the ongoing oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.
The Center for Toxicology & Environmental Health LLC, which also has offices in Franklin, Tenn., and Kemah, Texas, has worked on hundreds of oil spills, chemical releases and other environmental emergencies all over the country, said Glenn Millner, a toxicologist and one of the founders of the company.
Recently, the company came under fire in a letter written to BP by Rep. Lois Capps, D-Calif., and Rep. Pete Welch, D-Vt., who cited a story in The New York Times that was critical of the CTEH's history of environmental assessment work.
The letter, sent June 25, stated that BP's decision to hire CTEH was a "misstep" and, among other requests, called on BP to fire the company.
CTEH issued a response that rebutted the legislators' claims, and stated that "the only source of information [the congressmen] cite to support this demand is an inaccurate, misleading and unsubstantiated online report circulated on the Internet."
Millner said his company prided itself on its independence and scientific rigor, and that all of the company's testing methodologies being used in the Gulf were in line with the standards set forth by government agencies.
Normally, CTEH has about 115 employees. But since late April - shortly after BP's Deepwater Horizon rig exploded and sank into the Gulf, releasing millions and millions of gallons of crude into the water - that number has climbed to about 900, Millner said.
"We've hired a lot of people from Louisiana, Alabama, Mississippi and a lot of people from Arkansas," he said.
Most of the workers are temporary, and they are spread across a stage that stretches from Galveston, Texas, to the Apalachee Bay in Florida.
"What we're working on is ensuring the safety of workers and the public," Millner said. "We're working within what's called Unified Command. Our company is embedded within the framework of all the response activity."
Unified Command includes other contractors and corporations such as BP and Transocean, as well as state and federal agencies, such as the Environmental Protection Agency, the Occupational Safety & Health Administration and the National Institute for Occupational Safety & Health, which is part of the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention.
CTEH began working in the Gulf at the outset of the spill, which started April 20. Millner and others from the company began arriving the last week in April.
"We are not an actual pick-up-the-chemical-type company," Millner said. "But we'll make sure that the dispersants being used, or any type of chemical involved, we'll make sure that the workers are protected and the public is protected from that."
The company has a multidisciplinary team, including toxicologists, industrial hygienists, environmental scientists, physicians, nurses, chemical engineers and others who are on the ready for various incidents all over the country.
"We have our own plane, we have our own pilot, we have our own on-call team 24-7, and we have stock on our shelves - a lot of the technology and testing equipment on the shelf - ready to go 24-7," Millner said.
When CTEH first got to the Gulf, Millner and his team "put together what's called a job matrix, where we try to see the type of activities that will be occurring for spill cleanup," he said.
The company researched what kinds of hazards are associated with those cleanup activities and then built what Millner called a personal protective equipment matrix.
"We actually developed this in cooperation with OSHA and BP. We came up with a job safety analysis matrix so that when [crews] are working on, say, picking up tar balls, this is the type of personal protective equipment they wear," he said.
Though chemical hazards are an issue in any oil spill, other safety concerns exist as well.
"There are tents that are put up [for] water hydration, so we're making sure we're concerned about heat stress. A lot of people focus on the chemical hazards of the oil spill, but the main hazards are things like heat stress, and slips, trips and falls and puncture wounds, abrasions and scratches," Millner said.
The company is also monitoring the environment for hazardous chemicals.
Cory Davis is manager of toxicology emergency response at CTEH.
"We have an environmental team collecting environmental samples - sediment and water samples - in the Gulf. We have an industrial hygiene team that's conducting worker exposure monitoring, working on boats, working on land. We have an air-monitoring team that is monitoring from Port Arthur, Texas, to Apalachee cove in Florida," Davis said.
Millner and Davis both said the air along the coast was safe.
"We don't have concerns of air quality data, no," Millner said. "It's pretty consistent. We're not the only ones doing the air testing, but all that data says the same thing, that there is really no public health air quality concern."
They said that while several workers had become sick while performing various cleanup tasks, most of the episodes resulted from something other than chemicals.
"No one's saying workers aren't getting sick, because they are getting sick," Millner said. "But they're not getting sick from crude oil vapors and from dispersants. And that's what the OSHA data shows; that's what our data shows."
He said many of the people who had reported illnesses were CTEH workers, and that most incidents of worker illness were the result of heat stress.
Some CTEH workers have become sick as a result of food-related causes, Davis said.
According to a report on the NIOSH website, for workers both onshore and offshore, the most common type of illness reported was heat stress, while the most common type of injury was classified as contusion/abrasion.
Criticism of CTEH
The letter that Capps and Welch sent to BP cited a June 18 story published on The New York Times website. The story claimed that "CTEH has a history of being hired by companies accused of harming public health and releasing findings defending the corporate interests that employ them," the letter stated.
The story cited cases in which CTEH's test results differed from those of government agencies. One involved a Chinese drywall manufacturer whose product proved to be defective, while others pertained to work CTEH performed for Murphy Oil Corp., Chevron Corp. and the Tennessee Valley Authority.
Millner disputed the claims made in the Times story, though he did not go into details about the assertions regarding the company's past work.
Both the letter and the article described CTEH as being the primary monitor of health issues in the Gulf and implied that the company had not released all of its testing results and methodologies to government agencies.
According to its own letter, CTEH is not the only monitor of environmental health issues, and it has made its testing results available to both government agencies and the public.
"When received from the laboratory, worker exposure data we collect are reviewed by OSHA and NIOSH. The validated laboratory community data we collect are provided to the EPA on a daily basis for inclusion into their public SCRIBE database," the CTEH letter stated.
Fred Blosser, a spokesman for NIOSH, confirmed via e-mail that CTEH had provided that agency with testing data.
"CTEH and BP have been forthcoming in providing NIOSH with access to the CTEH data," he wrote. However, "we have not reviewed their data for accuracy or completeness."
"We're collecting split samples with the state of Mississippi and the state of Alabama, where they send state environmental representatives out with our teams and we both collect samples and split those and send them to our own independent labs," Davis said. "So there's a significant amount of oversight of the work that we're doing."
Davis said the company had many years of experience dealing with environmental emergencies.
"We're a very solid scientific company," Davis said. "We're working with Unified Command here on this project. We're working with the EPA. We're working with OSHA. We're working with all the regulatory agencies, and the plans that are written that CTEH is implementing are written and approved by Unified Command and we're complying with those plans."
Calls to the EPA were directed to Unified Command, which did not respond to a request for comments from the EPA and OSHA.
Davis described the working relationship among various contractors and government agencies as a very positive one.
"I feel like everyone here is on the same team," he said. "This is a unified command, which means we're all unified for the same goal and that is to clean the oil up out of the Gulf and to do it safely."