THE JIC’s ON US: Back in the day, I attended a school where inspirational-sounding, high-minded graffiti (inscribed in Latin, of course ) had been chiseled into any available wall space. “Numen Lumen” is the one I remember best. It was everywhere. And why not? It’s short. It rhymes. It’s catchy. And it spins a nice yarn: “Divine knowledge is light.” Who could argue with that? Based on my limited experience dealing with the Refugio Oil Spill, I’d say the folks running the “Joint Information Center,” known to one and all as “Jick,” might hold a contrary opinion on the interplay between light and knowledge. Given the perpetually shrinking sphincter through which incident information is so painfully squeezed, one could surmise the JIC’s operational mission statement alternates between “Ignorance Is Bliss” and “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.”
Let me acknowledge upfront their job ain’t easy. When agents of 27 bureaucracies from all over the country descend en masse upon an environmental crime scene, heed needs to be paid that they speak with one voice. Having covered a number of massive wildfire incidents, I know the drill. But in the aforementioned wildfires, somehow the federal and state and local firefighting agencies — all quasi-military, hierarchical, patriarchal, top-down, chain-of-command, turf-chomping cultures — managed to communicate with the local yokels without leaving too many palm prints permanently embedded in our foreheads. The difference has been striking. And not in a good way.
A key difference has been the central role played by Plains All American Pipeline, better known as PAAP and pronounced “Pap.” For those struck by interesting coincidences, it’s worth noting that “pap” was the milk-soaked bread once fed to infants and old people so they’d shut up. It’s since come to mean anything lacking in substance and value. Under federal law, PAAP — as “Responsible Party” — has a seat at the Big Boy table and is a core member of Incident Command, right up there with the Coast Guard and the Environmental Protection Agency. One especially incredulous fire fighter I know exclaimed, “That’s like us including the arsonist as part of our joint command.” PAAP, we are told, was extremely unhappy that county energy czar Kevin Drude was widely quoted in news articles explaining how the Plains pipeline was the only one in Santa Barbara to legally challenge county regulatory oversight. It was also the only one without automatic shutdown equipment. That’s another one of those interesting coincidences. Equally interesting was how completely incommunicado Drude became for about a week afterward, referring any inquiries to the JIC.
From the start, there’s been an intense, intimidating security presence hovering about Incident Command. And it didn’t just hover. As Supervisor Janet Wolf and her assistant Mary O’Gorman tried to enter a county-owned building for a briefing, they were stopped by a Plains-paid security operative wanting to know who they were. “Who are you?” Wolf demanded back. Supervisor Doreen Farr complained she’d been stopped at least twice herself. Media access to the spill site and beach cleanup operations was systematically restricted to the point of near exclusion.
Last weekend, Incident Command hosted an “Open House” at the Goleta Elks Lodge, where members of the public could go from display table to display table, asking questions of representatives of Plains and all the government agencies responding to the spill. Some county officials had suggested a community forum instead, in which a panel of responders would sit onstage, give presentations to an assembled audience, and then field questions. Coast Guard representatives reportedly refused outright to attend; such direct communication and accountability was outside their crisis-communications-management playbook. When Independent reporter Kelsey Brugger approached Plains representative Rick McMichael, he notified her the event was “for the public” not the media. If Brugger waited until the end of the three-hour event, she was told, he might find time to talk with her. Naturally, there was no shortage of security personnel, who very politely checked the bags of all who entered.
It’s been whispered that threats were made against Plains personnel in the wake of the spill. And not just threats, according to the whispers, but “credible threats.” How many or for what was never made clear. No one knew details. Somehow the word “credible” got used a lot. From the outset, we heard concerns some eco-crazy might fling a jar of Refugio crude at a Plains executive during a press conference. Such fears were frequently cited as the location for press briefings changed from one spot to another to yet another still. I asked Plains spokesperson Meredith Matthews about the alleged threats. “While we can’t elaborate on specifics,” she replied, “we have alerted the proper authorities of any security-related concerns.” I followed up with the Sheriff’s Office to see if reports had been filed. Sergeant Craig Bonner emailed back, “The JIC will have to be your information source.” I was dubious. I’d contacted JIC before. Of the 1,000 boots allegedly on the ground, how many belonged to security personnel? The person on the phone could not have been nicer. But I never got an answer. At Bonner’s insistence, I called JIC again. I got Michael Eidman on the line. He, too, could not have been nicer. “How many threats have been made?” I asked. “How were they communicated? Was any effort made to carry them out?” Eidman asked if he could put me on hold while he looked into it. “That’s not information we’re tracking at this time,” he said getting back on the line. I pressed for elaboration. None was to be had.
Wrapping up, I asked the correct spelling of Eidman’s name. Was he with the Coast Guard or the EPA? Neither, he said. He worked for Plains. Pap, indeed. Even so, Bonner insisted my questions should be directed to JIC. If the sphincter shrinks any tighter, we won’t have to worry about oil spills. We’ll all be strangled to death. Numen lumen, anyone?