Air Monitoring for Public Safety: Lessons Learned from the BP Gulf Oil Spill

It can happen anywhere. A train derails releasing a tank car full of toxic chemicals; a refinery accident blankets a residential community in a cloud of gas; or an offshore oil rig explodes, spewing crude oil into the ocean, causing coastal residents to complain of odors and health symptoms for weeks...

When environmental disasters like these take place, local communities and health care providers need information fast – they need to know what’s in the air, how high the levels are, and what to do to protect people’s health. That’s where the EPA and other agencies come in. Government emergency response programs are essential for protecting health. Unfortunately, there are gaps in this important safety system.

My colleagues and I examined the air quality emergency response efforts to the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.   The results of our analysis-- just published in the journal Environmental Science and Technology—show that there are lessons from this disaster that need to be incorporated into revised policies and procedures at the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) to ensure adequate health protections.

Our review of the air quality monitoring found five major deficiencies in the collection of information needed to rapidly assess health risks and inform the public. These deficiencies were:

(1) Inadequate and outdated monitoring equipment; agencies need to update their monitoring equipment so they can accurately measure low (and health-relevant) levels of contaminants.

(2) Regional disparities in monitoring capabilities resulting in delayed or missing data; all regions of the country must have adequate resources to assess baseline air quality and adequate surge capacity in an emergency.

(3) Regulatory discrepancies that resulted in inadequate worker protection; workplace monitoring and standards need to be updated to eliminate disparities between community and workplace protections.

(4) Data management inefficiencies that delayed the availability of results; agencies must implement the necessary technologies, guidelines, and procedures to ensure the capacity to accurately and quickly communicate monitoring results.

(5) Difficulties with public communication and outreach; EPA must ensure that monitoring and response plans involve communities and are responsive to their concerns, particularly with regard to odor complaints.

Although the BP oil spill was unprecedented in both size and scope, environmental disasters, unfortunately, are not rare.  In fact, while the world was focused on the oil gushing into the Gulf, there were at least two other oil spills that impacted US communities – in southern Michigan and Salt Lake City.  

The lessons learned from the Gulf oil disaster must not just be left to gather dust in a report on a shelf somewhere.  Now is the time for the agencies like the EPA and OSHA to take a hard look at their policies and procedures and ensure that the deficiencies have been remedied—before the next disaster occurs.

Until we’ve managed to get ourselves off our dangerous addiction to dirty fuels, we need to be prepared.