BP plans to incinerate 420,000 gallons of oil per day at the site of the Gulf spill, an unprecedented burn that raises health questions.

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WASHINGTON — Plans to burn hundreds of thousands of gallons of oil per day from BP’s blown-out well are raising new questions about the health and safety of thousands of workers near the spill site.

BP and the federal government are again in new territory in dealing with the nation’s worst environmental disaster: There has never been such a huge burning of oil in the Gulf of Mexico.

Scientists say the blown-out well could have been spewing up to 2 million gallons of crude a day before a cut-and-cap maneuver last week started capturing some of the flow, meaning more than 100 million gallons may have leaked into the Gulf of Mexico since the start of the disaster April 20.

That is more than nine times the size of the 1989 Exxon Valdez disaster, previously the worst U.S. oil spill. The larger estimates, issued this week, are preliminary and considered a worst-case scenario.

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The incineration of large amounts of oil, combined with clouds of smoke already wafting over the Gulf waters from controlled burns of surface oil, create pollution hazards for the estimated 2,000 people working in the area.

Dozens of rigs and ships are clustered in the area around the spill site.

The Discoverer Enterprise, the main recovery ship, is collecting as much as 630,000 gallons of oil a day through a pipe from the wellhead. A second vessel, the Q4000, is being prepared to pull up more oil and burn it. Experts say it could soon be burning 420,000 gallons a day.

Dr. Phil Harber, a professor at University of California, Los Angeles, said the burning oil could expose workers to toxins that might cause severe respiratory irritation and asthma attacks, depending on how the burns are handled.

Burning oil is a common method of relieving pressure in refinery operations, he said.

“But the magnitude is a concern,” said Harber, a lung specialist who’s also the chief of UCLA’s division of occupational and environmental medicine.

The other worry, he said, is if the wind carries off the thick clouds, “there are hundreds of ships in the area, and those workers could have significant exposures and perhaps less protection because the exposures would be unanticipated.”

Residents in the coastal communities — especially babies and people with asthma or serious heart problems — also could be vulnerable to any possible toxins from the burn-off.

Diane Bailey, a senior scientist with the Natural Resources Defense Council, questioned why the Coast Guard decided to allow the oil to be burned.

“It seems like a no-brainer that you wouldn’t want to do this,” she said. “Maybe there’s just such a logistical challenge in getting it onshore and getting it processed that they decided this is the cheapest, easiest thing to do. But the possible acute health problems should be of a greater concern.”

EPA consulted

BP spokeswoman Anne Koltun said the Environmental Protection Agency was consulted on the burning plan. An EPA permit isn’t required because the Deepwater Horizon site, 50 miles off the Louisiana coast, is outside the agency’s three-mile jurisdictional limit.

Burning the oil also would reduce the amount of money BP would earn from selling the crude, which the company has promised to donate to a fund to restore and improve wildlife habitat in the four states most damaged by the spill.

“They’re essentially burning money that could be used for Gulf restoration,” said Christopher Mann, of the Pew Environment Group.

Mann also questioned why so long after the explosion, BP and the Coast Guard still hadn’t moved enough tankers or other ships into the area to accommodate the volume of crude oil likely to be flowing from the damaged well.

“BP has known for weeks they’d be recovering large amounts of oil, and yet they now don’t have the capacity to recover it,” he said. “There’s a continuing failure to connect the dots.”

Harmful byproducts of burning the light crude include fine particles; toxic gases such as sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxides and carbon monoxide; polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, or PAHs, which result from the incomplete burning of carbon materials such as oil; and volatile organic compounds such as benzene toluene, ethylbenzene and xylene.

The EPA’s stationary monitors and mobile labs are checking for pollutants and have found air-quality levels for ozone and particulates that are normal for this time of year.

The agency has reported it also found low levels of chemicals from the oil that produce odors and can cause short-term effects such as headaches or nausea.

The Q4000 is expected to begin operations at the end of next week, Coast Guard Adm. Thad Allen, the government’s spill coordinator, said Friday. The Q4000 has a crew of 122.

In addition, there are two rigs digging relief wells that eventually will attempt to shut off the gushing oil.

More than a dozen remotely operated vehicles are at work at the spill, a mile below the surface, and each requires its own platform where its controllers work.

Allen said Friday that typically there are 25 to 30 vessels working within 2 square miles around the wellhead.

Allen said that once BP makes improvements and increases its capacity to capture the oil, it no longer would burn oil from the Q4000. However, those improvements aren’t expected until July.

BP then will install a floating pipe to extract the oil and bring in a larger production facility.

Allen said Friday that about 3.8 million gallons of oil have been burned on the surface in the 53 days since the Deepwater Horizon exploded, killing 11 workers.

Kent Wells, a BP vice president, said the burner hasn’t been used before in the Gulf of Mexico. Oil and gas will be burned separately. Wells said air would be injected into the oil so it would burn more cleanly.

Material from The Associated Press is included in this report.

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