Media, boaters could face criminal penalties by entering oil cleanup ‘safety zone’


The Coast Guard has put new restrictions in place across the Gulf Coast that prevent the public – including news photographers and reporters covering the BP oil spill – from coming within 65 feet of any response vessels or booms on the water or on beaches.

According to a news release from the Unified Command, violation of the “safety zone” rules can result in a civil penalty of up to $40,000, and could be classified as a Class D felony. Because booms are often placed more than 40 feet on the outside of islands or marsh grasses, the 65-foot rule could make it difficult to photograph and document the impacts of oil on land and wildlife, media representatives said.

But federal officials said the buffer zone is essential to the clean-up effort.

“The safety zone has been put in place to protect members of the response effort, the installation and maintenance of oil containment boom, the operation of response equipment and protection of the environment by limiting access to and through deployed protective boom,” the news release said.

The Coast Guard on Tuesday had initially established an even stricter “safety zone” of more than 300 feet, but reduced the distance to 20 meters – 65 feet – on Wednesday. In order to get within the 65-foot limit, media must call the Coast Guard captain of the Port of New Orleans, Edwin Stanton, to get permission.

Coast Guard Adm. Thad Allen, the national incident commander for the oil spill, said in a press briefing Thursday that it is “not unusual at all” for the Coast Guard to establish such a safety zone, likening it to a safety measure that would be enacted for “marine events” or “fireworks demonstrations” or for “cruise ships going in and out of port.”

Allen said BP had not brought up the issue, but that he had received some complaints from county commissioners in Florida and other local elected officials who “thought that there was a chance that somebody would get hurt or they would have a problem with the boom itself.”

Associated Press photographer Gerald Herbert, who has been documenting the oil spill, raised concerns about the restrictions within his news organization on Wednesday. He has asked for a sit-down with Coast Guard officials to discuss the new policy – and the penalties – but has not received a response.

Photographers have had similar problems viewing the oil’s impacts from the air. Photographer Ted Jackson of The Times-Picayune was trying to charter a flight with Southern Seaplane in late May to photograph oil coming ashore on Grand Isle, but the pilot was told that no media flights could go below 3,000 feet, due to restrictions from the Federal Aviation Administration.

That FAA policy has remained in effect, requiring media outlets to get special permission in order fly below 3,000 feet.

“Often the general guise of ‘safety’ is used as a blanket excuse to limit the media’s access, and it’s been done before,” Herbert said Thursday. “It feels as though news reporting is being criminalized under thinly veiled excuses. The total effect of all these restrictions is harming the public’s right to know.”

Matthew Hinton, a Times-Picayune photographer who has been on boats throughout Barataria Bay and Breton Sound in recent weeks, said it is already difficult to capture images of oiled birds when at the edge of the boom. Adding an additional 65-foot buffer would mean “You’d have to mount a telescope” to the camera to get a clear picture, he said.

And from a practical standpoint, the 65-foot safety zone could serve to block photographers and reporters from accessing some waterways altogether. Boom is often placed along the water’s edge in some bayous that are less than 20 meters wide.

“Just to go through a bayou, you’d need more than 20 meters,” Hinton said. “Your whole path would be blocked.”

Plaquemines Parish President Billy Nungesser said he feels media access is important to getting the word out about the local impact of the spill, and said the Coast Guard’s safety measures were an “overreaction.”

“I think somebody came up with a good reason of how to justify keeping the press away,” Nungesser said. “But guess what? That isn’t gonna keep us away. Anytime you all want, you all can come in there wherever we go, on our boats.”

Although the order mandating the safety zone was carried out by the captains of the Ports of New Orleans, Morgan City and Mobile, Ala., a spokeswoman at the joint information center for the unified command said the order was a Coast Guard-wide directive from the top.

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Stuart H. Smith is an attorney based in New Orleans fighting major oil companies and other polluters.
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