Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Coast Guard promises greater media access to Gulf exclusion zone, but there’s a catch

After intense public outcry over members of the press being fined and prosecuted for walking within 20 meters of oil boom or spill response operations, U.S. authorities promised Tuesday that reporters and photographers would be given increased access.

Of course, there seems to be a catch.

The spill response operations commander, Coast Guard Admiral Thad Allen, said in a media advisory that due to equipment which had been "damaged", officials will attempt to "discriminate" between media and "somebody who's hanging around". The advisory did not specify what criteria would be used to make such a determination, nor does it say the Coast Guard is backing off the exclusion zone, which was claimed in some initial online reports.

The announcement does not mention the penalty for violation of the 20-meter rule; indeed, it appears as though a Class D felony charge and fine of $40,000 are still real threats to reporters who refuse to ask permission.

The only real difference between prior policy and the revised media requirements is a centralization of credentialing operations. Previously, reporters were told to ask local authorities for permission to enter the exclusion zone. Such requests have often been granted or denied on a whim, for reasons real or imagined. It would appear that could still be the case, except the determination is now to be made by Unified Command in New Orleans, instead of officers or security guards on the scene.

The Deepwater Horizon Unified Command's press release insists the 20-meter rule -- first issued on June 30 -- was never meant to restrict the press, yet efforts by BP and government officials seemingly hoping to do just that have been well documented.

Unified Command added that those determined to be media would be allowed access to the exclusion zone, "provided they follow certain rules and guidelines." Their advisory does not specify what rules or guidelines those might be.

An e-mail seeking clarification from the Unified Command was met with a prompt reply and a printable credential. The document would appear to be a form letter with a personalized heading. It outlines a number of safety tips mostly pertaining to those operating vessels in oil-thickened waters around the miles of boom netting deployed near and on the coast.

The credential, which any reporter covering the spill must carry with them while inside the exclusion zone, reads:

The US Coast Guard and Joint Information Center have approved your Media Vessel Credential. You are authorized to travel within the 20m boom safety zone for media activities. Please be aware that the area is an operational area and there may be many boats engaged in oil spill recovery activities.

This e-mail is the official media credential. There is no need to apply again as this credential is valid for the duration of the response.

Please follow the guidelines listed below.

All vessels traveling into a safety zone must have a media vessel credential. Carry this authorization letter with you while onboard and underway.

Media must also carry their official media credential.

Vessel operator must obey all federal, state and local navigation rules and regulations.

Vessel should maintain a safe distance from anchored boom, but may be within the established 20m safety zone for media activities if it is hazard-free.

Vessel speed must not create wake near booms, vessels servicing booms, decontaminating vessels or other boats actively engaged in oil recovery operations.

Vessel may not make contact with or cross a deployed boom, as this will damage the boom and may result in damage to your boat.

Vessel must have onboard all federal, state, and locally required safety equipment. Safety equipment must be in proper working condition and USCG approved.

Before leaving the dock, all vessels should be advised of weather conditions and know the effect wind, current and tide will have on the boat’s movement.

This authorization is effective immediately.

This media credential authorizes this vessel access to the Deepwater Horizon response areas and exempts master/owner of the vessel from the 20m safety zone around booms. Contact the DWH Joint Information Center at: 713.323.1670 if you have questions or need clarification.

Additional questions posed to the Unified Command -- like, whether or not the penalties for exclusion zone violations are still in force, or whether reporters can be detained or arrested if they forget to carry their credential -- went unanswered.

"If we can't show what's happening, warts and all, then that makes it very easy to hide failure and hide incompetence and makes it very hard to highlight the hard work of cleanup crews and the Coast Guard," CNN anchor Anderson Cooper opined in a recent broadcast. "We are not the enemy here."

This video is from CNN, published to YouTube on July 1, 2010.


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