Journalists and independent observers of the oil cleanup in the Gulf of Mexico could be fined up to $40,000 and be charged with a felony if they get too close to booms and oil cleanup areas, and activist group Seize BP wants to know how authorities can justify such a muzzle on independent information gatherers.
The Partnership for Civil Justice Fund (PCJF) filed a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request on behalf of Seize BP, demanding specific information on the US Coast Guard’s justification for establishing 20-meter security zones around cleanup areas.
Seize BP is an activist group calling for the government to freeze BP’s assets to provide comprehensive compensation in the Gulf.
Last week, Coast Guard Adm. Thad Allen said in a news conference that the security zones were implemented in three cities – Mobile, Alabama; Morgan City, Louisiana; and New Orleans, Louisiana – after officials complained that booms being used to clean up oil could be damaged or vandalized. The Coast Guard can grant journalists permission to enter the zones on a case-by-case basis.
Carl Messineo, the attorney who filed the FOIA, told Truthout that Allen’s justification is “suspicious” and “highly doubtful” considering BP’s record of spreading misinformation about the oil spill – and the government’s habit of backing it up – while using police and private security forces to keep journalists at bay. The FOIA filed specifically asks whom these civil officials were and if BP had anything to do with the decision.
“This attempt to muzzle the press on behalf of BP is just the latest in a series of actions that indicate collusion between the federal government and a giant corporate entity that has created an environmental disaster due to criminal negligence,” Messineo said.
In a recent response to concerns about the security zones, Megan Moloney, a spokesperson for Allen, said the zones were required “due to recent instances of protective boom being vandalized or broken by non-response vessels getting too close.”
Coast Guard Lt. John Budiao, a spokesperson for the Deepwater Horizon Incident Joint Information Center, told Truthout that he was not aware of any incidences of booms being damaged or vandalized. He did mention that authorities had thought a recent photograph revealed a damaged boom, but workers had simply cut its lines as a standard procedure and statements regarding the incident were corrected.
“There hasn’t been a lot of evidence of vandalism, but the great body of evidence is that the booms are failing, and that’s really chilling,” Messineo said.
Budiao quickly excused himself and hung up the phone after being asked about the hefty fine and class D felony charge facing journalists who enter the security zones without permission. A separate spokesperson confirmed that it was Budiao who spoke with Truthout.
Coast Guard officials have pointed out that the 20-meter security zone is minimal and does not hamper documentation of the cleanup, but Messineo said that several security zones could block off access to entire areas. He said that entire areas of the Louisiana bayou are now impassible because of the security zones.
Messineo claimed access to the booms is necessary to provide independent information of their effectiveness and to also monitor the effects of the unprecedented amounts of Corexit dispersants BP has sprayed across the gulf.
Conservationists and critics have argued that the dispersants are toxic, harmful to humans and wildlife and disperse the oil below the booms, rendering them ineffective.
When asked if the safety zones cold be challenged under the First Amendment, Messineo was uncertain, but he was reminded of case law involving police lines preventing peaceful protesters from speaking their minds in public places.