Writing in Thursday’s New York Times, Jeremy W. Peters provides further documentation of what he titles "Efforts to Limit the Flow of Spill News". Perhaps the most damning evidence Peters provides comes from an effort by Florida Senator Bill Nelson to visit the Gulf with a group of reporters:
Last week, Senator Bill Nelson, Democrat of Florida, tried to bring a small group of journalists with him on a trip he was taking through the gulf on a Coast Guard vessel. Mr. Nelson’s office said the Coast Guard agreed to accommodate the reporters and camera operators. But at about 10 p.m. on the evening before the trip, someone from the Department of Homeland Security’s legislative affairs office called the senator’s office to tell them that no journalists would be allowed.
“They said it was the Department of Homeland Security’s response-wide policy not to allow elected officials and media on the same ‘federal asset,’ ” said Bryan Gulley, a spokesman for the senator. “No further elaboration” was given, Mr. Gulley added.
Why would the Department of Homeland Security have a policy that prohibits elected officials and media being on the same ship in the Gulf? Is there any other explanation than a blatant attempt by the federal government to stifle reporting on conditions in the Gulf as they really exist, rather than as they have been presented by BP and federal "spokespeople"?
Consider also the efforts this week of NOAA Adminstrator Jane Lubchenco to delay work on scientific characterization of undersea oil plumes:
Jane Lubchenco, head of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), yesterday repeated her plea for researchers to be cautious in collecting and interpreting evidence of underwater plumes of oil from the Deepwater Horizon well. Citing unusable data from some expeditions, she proposed a workshop to coordinate sampling methods before more cruises depart. But a prominent academic disagreed, saying that studying the plumes is too urgent to be delayed.
Lubchenco cautioned that oil samples needed to be chemically fingerprinted, because of the potential for confusion with natural oil seeping into the gulf. "There is a lot of potential out there for jumping to conclusions that may not be warranted," Lubchenco said at a research symposium in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, organized by the Consortium for Ocean Leadership. "We are all served best by proceeding in a careful, thoughtful, and quantifiable manner." Lubchenco appeared to be referring to her previous criticisms that the initial claim of a plume was premature.
The NOAA and Homeland Security actions, taken together, take on the appearance of the government working hand in hand with BP to prevent independent discovery and analysis of conditions in the Gulf on a real-time basis, so that the media and the public become dependent on information provided only by federal or BP sources.
But it’s not only the Feds who are doing BP’s bidding in preventing access. Mother Jones reporter Mac McClelland was one of the first reporters on the scene in the Gulf, and a recurring theme in her reporting has been the collusion of local authorities with BP in restricting access to areas damaged by oil. Consider this account of one attempt to gain access to a spill area:
The blockade to Elmer’s is now four cop cars strong. As we pull up, deputies start bawling us out; all media need to go to the Grand Isle community center, where a "BP Information Center" sign now hangs out front. Inside, a couple of Times-Picayune reporters circle BP representative Barbara Martin, who tells them that if they want passage to Elmer they have to get it from another BP flack, Irvin Lipp; Grand Isle beach is closed too, she adds. When we inform the Times-Pic reporters otherwise, she asks Dr. Hazlett if he’s a reporter; he says, "No." She says, "Good." She doesn’t ask me. We tell her that deputies were just yelling at us, and she seems truly upset. For one, she’s married to a Jefferson Parish sheriff’s deputy. For another, "We don’t need more of a black eye than we already have."
"But it wasn’t BP that was yelling at us, it was the sheriff’s office," we say.
"Yeah, I know, but we have…a very strong relationship."
"What do you mean? You have a lot of sway over the sheriff’s office?"
And, of course, McClelland also documented the famous encounter of a CBS camera team with Coast Guard personnel and local BP contractors informing them of "BP rules" that prevented their access:
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Taken together, we see multiple federal and local agencies working with or for BP to prevent independent gathering of news or scientific data to document the damage that has resulted from BP’s blown-out oil well. It’s hard to believe that these efforts are anything other than an attempt to help BP lower its financial liability stemming from the spill. That explains why the government was so slow to force BP to make video of the the leaks available. Once the video became available, the estimates of the leak rate went up dramatically and BP’s eventual fines will be based on the amount of oil released.
Sadly, the time has come where the only way to restore credibility to the response to the spill is going to be to distance decision-making from both the federal government and BP. A truly independent commission headed by a team with appropriate scientific, engineering and environmental backgrounds needs to be assembled and put in charge of efforts to stop the flow of oil and to mitigate the effects of the oil already released. The resources of both BP and the federal government should be made available to this commission without reservation to allow rapid implementation of the strategies they adopt.
After all, our President has informed us that he would rather look forward than backwards, so why is the only independent commission he has appointed tasked with looking into what happened rather than what should be done?