CRYING OVER SPILLED OIL: Hindsight, we are told, is 20-20. Maybe that’s true. But after bushwhacking my way through two acronym-encrusted “action reports” assessing the cleanup efforts of last May’s Refugio pipeline rupture and oil spill — one issued this week by the Coast Guard, the other by the state’s Office of Spill Prevention and Response — I have serious doubts.
The two reports prove what you see depends largely on where you happen to be standing. Reading the two tomes, I wondered if I ever occupied the same zip code as the authors. The reports are designed to highlight what worked well and what didn’t to better prepare for the next inevitable spill. Much ink was spent on media relations, public information, and community outreach. Glaring in its omission, however, was any mention of the media spin memo produced by the folks working the Joint Information Center (JIC) that proved so embarrassing when leaked. The memo suggested the media outreach teams reach out to “neutral to positive reporters” whom “we plan to target” to “help tell the ‘progress’ story.” The same memo included a detailed appendix providing background on the “neutral to positive” reporters they’d identified “as well as reasons for their selection.” Independent reporter Kelsey Brugger, for example, was described as “mostly balanced.”
To be fair, there were bound to be problems. Representatives from 27 government agencies converged on Santa Barbara to put the 142,000-gallon oil spill genie back into its bottle after a major rupture of a Plains All American Pipeline located only spitting distance from the most scenic and ecologically unique coastal real estate in the world. At various times, up to 1,300 people were engaged in various cleanup efforts, some using pressurized liquid nitrogen — we only now find out — to freeze-blast oil off some rocks and boulders.
Those directing the cleanup efforts, both reports make clear, were blown away by the intensity of community response. The Coast Guard report noted large numbers of locals formed their own cleanup crews and “self-deployed,” armed with hand tools and five-gallon buckets donated by an area hardware outlet. “The community response likely resulted from the perception of a slow and/or inadequate response given the presence of oil on shorelines and no response personnel on-scene at the time,” the Coast Guard found. Bordering on actual self-criticism, the report described a community that “understandably perceived an ineffectual response in light of the initial lack of response activity amid oiled beaches given prolonged responder and resource transit times on the first day.”
For all the self-congratulatory details in both reports on how many people attended public information open houses and the pioneering use of social media, neither provided an actual timeline that lays out when the Coast Guard was first notified, when it mobilized a flotilla of cleanup vessels, and when actual cleanup and containment commenced. Conspicuously lacking from either is how much time elapsed between first notification and actual cleanup. Could it have gone faster? Would that have made a difference? I don’t pretend to know. But the people who wrote these reports should. In neither were these questions answered. Worse, they weren’t even asked.
For the record, on June 18, I did. In writing. I sent an email to Chief Petty Officer Kip Wadlow of the Coast Guard, posing 12 very detailed questions in hopes of creating a verifiable timeline of the cleanup response. Wadlow is to be commended for remarkable grace and professionalism. But I still haven’t gotten an answer. Perhaps that’s understandable. As the Coast Guard report notes, there were “frequent unannounced personnel rotations” among public information officers assigned the oil spill. Coast Guard brass responded to problems created by this turnover, at least according to the report, by offering media helicopter tours of the spill area and offering them tours of the Incident Command Post. In hindsight, the Coast Guard report concluded they should have offered even more flights. Not to whine, but I was never offered a ride in any helicopter. Nor were any of my colleagues at The Independent. In hindsight, we certainly wish we had been. Not only would it have provided powerful images that told the story in vast panoramic expanse; it would have been cool and fun.
As for Incident Command, the presence of so many private security goons hired by Plains All American — the Guilty Party — had a chilling effect. Not only were reporters made to feel unwelcome; county supervisors Janet Wolf and Doreen Farr were stopped and asked what they were doing there. There was no mention in either report that the Guilty Party was a full partner in Unified Command, nor any mention of how that may have influenced the release of information.
In the aftermath of the spill, reporters and photographers were routinely kept off area beaches. Indy photographer Paul Wellman recalls being told he was not allowed to shoot the railroad tracks — located conspicuously between the broken pipelines and the contaminated beach — upon order of Homeland Security. Wellman found access to the spill scene curtailed and had to sneak along on cleanup tours given by incident commanders to our elected officials.
If you don’t do dumb stuff like that, you won’t need to “target” reporters deemed “neutral to positive.” For the record, my name was not among the list of favored reporters. Naturally, I was curious how they assessed my journalistic tendencies. What other reporters had they scouted and found wanting? I filed a detailed Public Records Act Request. Guess what? I’m still waiting.