Groups Tell Congress: Gulf Coast Cleanup Workers Must Be Protected

Congress should immediately act to protect the health and safety of workers and residents engaged in the cleanup of New Orleans and the Gulf Coast, according to a group of more than 100 of the nation's foremost labor, religious, environmental, community, public health and public interest organizations and more than 100 academic, medical, religious and public health leaders.

In a letter sent Oct. 6 to every member of Congress, the group – which includes top experts in the fields of occupational and environmental medicine and industrial hygiene – warns that "thousands of disaster responders, workers and volunteers in the Gulf Coast areas affected by Hurricane Katrina and Rita remain inadequately protected against exposure to environmental health hazards."

"In the days immediately following Katrina's landfall, at a time when lives were at stake, we watched with admiration and gratitude as rescue workers sought out and saved victims without regard for their personal safety," said John H. Thomas, general minister and president, United Church of Christ. "Now that we have moved into the long-term recovery effort, the urgent concern for rebuilding the Gulf Coast should not become an excuse for failing to protect the health of those doing the rebuilding. Persons desperate for jobs and eager to share in the rebuilding of their communities must not be asked to expose themselves to the risk of long term health problems caused by Katrina's toxic residue."

The letter to Congress maintains that "thousands of workers and residents were unnecessarily exposed to toxic substances after being assured by EPA that the air was safe to breathe. . . . Now, more than a month after the storm, EPA and OSHA should immediately commence enforcement of life-saving workplace and environmental laws and regulations."

"Gulf Coast residents and workers have been physically, emotionally and financially devastated by this disaster. Congress and the Bush Administration have a responsibility to act to protect the safety and health of citizens and workers during recovery and reconstruction, so that the tragedy that has already occurred is not made even worse," said Peg Seminario, AFL-CIO safety and health director.

The letter outlines concrete steps the federal government should take to protect workers from the millions of gallons of petroleum, toxic substances from Superfund sites, bacteria, lead, mercury, hexavalent chromium, arsenic and pesticides that contaminated the floodwaters. These include:

  • Adoption of "appropriate precautionary measures to be implemented until the work environment is demonstrated to be safe"
  • Initiation of a comprehensive environmental sampling plan
  • Worker training about occupational and environmental health and safety hazards
  • Medical surveillance of clean up workers
  • Appropriate decontamination.

In addition, the letter calls for special protection for immigrant and temporary workers who are least likely to be provided with proper training and respiratory protection.

"We're seeing who gets hurt when you ignore safety and health protections," said Juan Alvarez, Director, Latin American Organization for Immigrant Rights in Houston. "Contractors are hiring immigrant workers right here in Houston and taking them to New Orleans to do cleanup. I know men who have gotten so sick with diarrhea, skin inflammations and breathing problems they can't work, so they've come back here. The contractors just hire more."

He went on to note that everyone doing cleanup in New Orleans – even residents – needs protection, especially workers who are afraid they will be fired if they complain. Alvarez claimed the federal government created the situation by not enforcing safety and health laws and by putting a 45-day moratorium on enforcing the laws against employing undocumented workers. "So," he added, "the federal government must take the responsibility for keeping them safe."

Carl Pope, president of Sierra Club said that weakening environmental laws is the "worst thing" Congress could do right now. "Our government failed to protect Americans from exposure to toxic pollution in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 attack. Now we see a similar failed response to the Katrina hurricane. The public has every right to expect strong action to protect public health in the wake of a national disaster," said Pope.

Joel Shufro, executive director of the New York Committee for Occupational Safety and Health, said he does not think the regulatory agencies charged with the responsibility of protecting the health and safety of workers and residents along the Gulf Coast are enforcing what he calls "essential rules," and, he claimed, these same agencies "are making statements that minimize the seriousness of the hazards."

Louisiana resident Marylee Orr, who is the director of the Louisiana Environmental Action Network said that in addition to health and safety concerns for workers and residents, her group is worried about long-term environmental damage to Lake Ponchartrain, New Orleans and the surrounding areas. "Relaxing environmental regulations will only make all of the problems worse while bringing little or no positive benefits," she said.

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