Text and photos by Carl Safina
You’d think that, with an ongoing environmental disaster caused by a foreign corporation, the U.S. government would be OK with letting the public see what’s going on. Land of the free, right?
Well, not necessarily.
Among the latest and most enraging developments in the ongoing Gulf oil blowout catastrophe is that on June 30, the Coast Guard suddenly decided that something we’ve been doing for weeks—getting near booms deployed ostensibly to deter oil (because you really can’t avoid them)—is a felony.
This, after weeks of people screaming for transparency and complaining about interference, the Administration promising transparency, and journalists (and myself) complaining of petty bullying on public roads and beaches by people now getting paid by BP. [For plenty of other reporting on the news strangle, do a Google search with the words: media access gulf oil]
Here it is:
June 30, 2010 16:51:40 CST
Coast Guard establishes 20-meter safety zone around all Deepwater Horizon protective boom; operations
NEW ORLEANS – The Captains of the Port for Morgan City, La., New Orleans, La., and Mobile, Ala., under the authority of the Ports and Waterways Safety Act, has [sic] established a 20- meter safety zone surrounding all Deepwater Horizon booming operations and oil response efforts taking place in Southeast Louisiana.
Vessels must not come within 20 meters of booming operations, boom, or oil spill response operations under penalty of law.
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.
In areas where vessels operators cannot avoid the 20-meter rule, they are required to be cautious of boom and boom operations by transiting at a safe speed and distance.
Violation of a safety zone can result in up to a $40,000 civil penalty. Willful violations may result in a class D felony.
Permission to enter any safety zone must be granted by the Coast Guard Captain of the Port of New Orleans by calling 504-846-5923.
First of all, you can’t stay 66 feet [20 m] away from “boom” (it seems always referred to in the singular, like one mass of material) even if you never leave your car. They’re everywhere there’s saltwater from coastal Louisiana to Florida’s panhandle, alongside roads and under bridges. Second, no one interferes with them. Why would they; the booms aren’t doing much. They’re just floating there or lying where they’ve been pushed ashore by waves.
But here’s the thing: They can’t say, “We forbid the people of the United States from taking photos or talking to people.” But they know that the photos they don’t want you to see, the upsetting ones, tend to come from places where there is a lot of oil. And all those places have booms nearby. And they know that if you’re going to talk to anyone close to the situation, there’ll probably be booms nearby.
For people like me who are documenting some of what’s happening, cameras and notebooks have become hassle-magnets. And now—in accord with the interests of BP and contrary to the public interest—any official, any kid with an orange vest, any rent-a-cop who wants your camera and you gone, can not only yell and tell you you’re “not allowed,” they can threaten you with felony charges for being near boom. Boom has become proxy for censorship. They’ve lowered the boom.
So on the morning of the Fourth of July I found myself in Mobile, Alabama near the USS Alabama herself.
And there, because this is the Gulf region in the summer of 2010, I found myself in close proximity to—yes—boom.
It was only fitting. The battleship went boom, the cannons go boom. And now, more boom. Boom boom boom. (This one was holding a very light slick between the boom and the shore, a common misfunction.)
So, in the spirit of Independence Day, honoring the Revolution and all, I decided to be willful, thus commit a felony, and record it photographically. I report it here, patriotically and unrepentantly. Shame on BP, and shame on the Coast Guard. Shame, indeed, on us all, for letting our own government drift so deep into corporate territory, so far from allegiance to We, the people.