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Coast Guard "Safety Zones" Keep Media Away From BP Disaster Sites

Gulf oil spill cleanup booms

BP has shown no shame over the past few months in keeping reporters away from oil disaster sites with both local police and hired mercenaries. But up until now, the Coast Guard has made a pointed effort to separate itself from BP's policies—in late May, Lieutenant Commander Chris O'Neill, the Chief of Media Relations for the U.S. Coast Guard, told us that BP's threats to arrest crews venturing too close to oil-covered beaches aren't "reflective of policy for media access to the spill site or spill mitigation efforts." Apparently, that policy has changed with a Coast Guard rule establishing a 65-foot "safety zone" surrounding oil disaster boom operations and response efforts taking place in Southeast Louisiana. Violators face a $40,000 civil penalty, and willful violations can result in a class D felony. And the policy applies to the media.

The reason? According to a statement from Megan Moloney, a spokeswoman for National Incident Commander Thad Allen, it's a reaction to prior incidents:

Last week Coast Guard Captains of the Port in the region put in place limited, small waterside safety zones around protective boom and those vessels actively responding to this spill. This was required due to recent instances of protective boom being vandalized or broken by non-response vessels getting too close. These 20-meter zones are only slightly longer than the distance from a baseball pitcher's mound to home plate. This distance is insignificant when gathering images. In fact, these zones, which do not target the press, can and have been opened for reporters as required.

But while Moloney says that the distance is insignificant for reporters gathering images, the Times-Picayune begs to differ. It has been difficult enough for photographers to take pictures of oiled birds at the edge of booms—the new restriction means that the media would "have to mount a telescope" to get decent pictures, explained Matthew Hinton, a Times-Picayune photographer, to the paper.

As Moloney's statement makes clear, the 20-meter zones aren't entirely off-limits for reporters. Members of the media can apply for permits from the Coast Guard to bypass the zones, according to ProPublica. And Lt. John Budaio of the US Coast Guard tells us that similar safety zones have always been part of standard operating procedure in the Deepwater Horizon cleanup.

Lt. Thad Allen, the National Incident Commander of the Deepwater Horizon Unified Command, announced one month ago that "The media will have uninhibited access anywhere we're doing operations, except for two things, if it's a security or safety problem." But is this safety zone rule just another way to keep journalists from having uninhibited access to the rapidly worsening situation?

 

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Ariel Schwartz can be reached on Twitter or by email.