PARACHUTE, Colorado - Federal workplace safety officials have been looking into possible worker safety hazards at the Parachute plume site since April 2, according to an official with the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA).
Juan Rodriguez, the Dallas-based deputy regional director of public affairs for OSHA, said the agency had not heard about the Parachute Creek plume until it was tipped off by a March 29 call from a Post Independent reporter.
The reporter asked whether an OSHA investigation had been started in connection with the plume incident and was told no such investigation had been formally opened at that time.
By April 2, Rodriguez said, a formal investigation had begun into reports that employees at the plume site were working without the proper protective gear.
Rodriguez emphatically refused to disclose any details about OSHA's activities at the plume site, but said the results of the investigation would be made public once it is completed.
The investigation could take as long as six months, he said.
Meanwhile, a trio of men told the Post Independent this week they fear they have been poisoned from benzene exposure during weeks of work on the hydrocarbon spill.
The three men work for Badger Daylighting Inc., a subcontractor to Williams Midstream.
On its website, Badger lists excavation projects related to oil and gas pipelines as its top category of work.
The three Badger employees declined to be identified due to fears of losing their jobs.
"I've already had my job threatened," one of them said.
On April 8, the three men underwent medical examinations at the Grand River Health hospital in Rifle, seeking explanations for symptoms they have been experiencing.
According to the men, they each have suffered from severe headaches, bleeding noses, stiff joints in their arms and legs and other maladies during the past three weeks or so.
"I'm waking up in the mornings and I can't move," one of them said, adding with a note of incredulity in his voice that he is only in his early 30s.
The results of blood tests at Grand River Health did not detect benzene in his bloodstream, he said on April 9. "It came out negative."
Despite the Grand River Health test results, the worker noted, "I have all the symptoms" of being exposed to benzene.
He said he has had other tests conducted by other doctors and was told it may take weeks before the benzene poisoning shows up in his blood.
He declined to release test results on the advice of his attorney, he said.
The three workers all said no breathing devices were distributed to prevent the workers from breathing in fumes from the hydrocarbons.
A call to the office of Badger Daylighting of western Colorado was answered by a man who identified himself as the area manager. He would say nothing beyond, "At this time Badger Daylighting is not making any comments to the press."
Badger's regional director, Tim Reiber in Henderson, Colo., did not return a call requesting comment on the matter.
Crews from two natural-gas development companies - Williams Midstream and WPX Energy - have been investigating the plume since it was discovered by Williams workers on March 8.
Williams spokeswoman Donna Gray said in response to earlier inquiries that there had been no complaints about worker injuries at the plume site. Gray did not respond on Wednesday to repeated requests for comment about this story.
Water samples taken from monitoring wells have turned up high levels of the compound benzene, ranging from 1,900 parts per billion (ppb) to 18,000 ppb, depending on which well was being sampled.
Benzene is a known carcinogen linked to such diseases as leukemia, bone-marrow failure, and birth defects.
The maximum safe level of benzene in drinking water, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), is 5 ppb.
OSHA has set a permissible exposure limit of 1 part benzene per million parts of air (1 ppm, or 1,000 ppb) in the workplace, averaged over an eight-hour day.