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Times-Picayune: Air monitoring in response to Gulf of Mexico oil spill criticized as inconsistent

The nonprofit Louisiana Bucket Brigade released a critical review Tuesday of the air-monitoring program established by the Environmental Protection Agency in response to the Gulf of Mexico oil spill.

The 10-page review, which examines the EPA’s air data from the early days of the spill through July 10, faulted the agency for gaps and inconsistencies in its air-monitoring system and the sometimes-incomprehensible presentation of the data it publishes online.

The EPA primarily monitors four types of airborne substances known to cause health problems: solid or liquid particles 2.5 micrometers or less in diameter, particles 10 micrometers or less in diameter, and volatile and semi-volatile organic compounds that emanate from the oil as it evaporates from the water’s surface. Fifteen monitoring sites are positioned along the Louisiana coast.

While the EPA has reported particle pollution and ozone levels as “good” to “moderate” and “unhealthy for sensitive groups” at worst, the agency’s detection of elevated levels of benzene, a volatile organic compound, has raised concerns with the Bucket Brigade, as have levels of hydrogen sulfide in the Venice area.

The organization is calling for more consistent and sensitive air sampling. It is also questioning the EPA’s judgment in placing its monitoring stations.

On the Bucket Brigade’s website, an “oil spill crisis map” displays clusters of colored dots pinpointing every spill-related health complaint, chemical accident, oiled-wildlife sighting, property damage report and community gathering.

Anne Rolfes, who directs the Bucket Brigade, noted that odor complaints have surfaced beyond the range of the EPA’s stationary monitors.

“The EPA doesn’t have the best equipment or the best blueprint for how to do sampling,” she said. “They’re trying to solve today’s problem with a 20th century approach.”

Rolfes concedes that the EPA is dealing with an unprecedented task. Because states have traditionally run their own air pollution control agencies, which employ monitoring systems with limited range and focus, the EPA did not establish its own program here until soon after the spill.

It’s the most comprehensive program conducted in the region to date, but there is little baseline data with which to compare post-spill particulate levels. Determining “normal” thresholds for hazardous compounds can be tricky in a region with a long history of oil and gas production.

“We don’t have the background to say what is normal,” said Earthea Nance, assistant professor of hazard mitigation planning at the University of New Orleans. “If what is normal is a high background (pollution level) created by a series of industries … the normal may itself be a concern. That’s what we don’t know.”

“The question is whether what people are smelling is actually a concern to health, whether it’s coming from the background or the oil spill,” Rolfes said.

Her organization has provided a number of suggestions to the EPA regarding the organization of its data, some of which the agency has already implemented.

Currently, data is organized by sampling method, rather than by the type of chemical sampled, Nance said. She suggested the EPA provide definitions for each compound, present sample data in a readable chart and highlight instances where readings exceeded the standard.

“People are stuck reading (the online data) while scientists figure out if it’s safe,” Rolf said. “We’re in a living laboratory right now … it’s just the hard truth.”

In response to the Bucket Brigade’s review, the EPA released a statement saying, “EPA has worked with the Bucket Brigade and other local non-governmental organizations consistently throughout this response and we have frequently discussed our monitoring efforts with them. We will continue to share data and work closely with these groups as our response to this crisis continues.”

The Bucket Brigade is encouraging the EPA to finance a long-term program that would involve training out-of-work community members to conduct environmental sampling.

Such a program would provide more comprehensive, site-specific data than what the EPA’s fixed monitoring stations can supply, the Bucket Brigade argues. It might also spur economic revitalization.

“It would open up whole pathway of green economic job growth for people whose children are thinking about leaving the region,” Nance said.

“There’s a whole generation who would stay here.”