The 65ft rule: Media and the BP spill

As the cleanup of BP’s massive oil spill continues, the U.S. Coast Guard has created a blanket rule that keeps everyone – including the media –at least 65 feet away from oiled wildlife, response ships and BP’s boom. Partnered with BP’s tight restrictions on media access, what does this mean for accountability? Tanya Gulliver, who travelled to the oil-soaked Grand Isle, reports.

This article originally appeared on Gulliver’s personal blog, where she has posted more photos from the spill.

Wow. The Coast Guard has just implemented a new rule stating that no one – whether members of the public or media – can get within 65ft of oiled wildlife, boom, response vessels etc.

When I went to Grand Isle a few weeks ago we stayed far away from boats in the water because we didn’t want to distub any work that they were doing.

We did however get pretty close to the boom itself; while the others had fancy cameras I have a cheap little Fuji and the zoom is adequate but not impressive. Which of the following two pictures provides you with better information?

This…(a zoomed in picture from 20 ft away)

…or this, a picture right near the boom?

Now, I can’t afford a $40000 fine or to get charged with a Class D felony, so I’m obviously going to have to respect this regulation as much as possible. But, until someone offers to pay me to write about the oil spill, I’m a freelance writer without a job, and as far as the Coast Guard or BP or anyone else is considered I’m the same as Jane Public.

However, members of the media are a critical component of enabling the public to know what is going on. While I respect the need for safety and security – for the boom not to get tangled or run over, for the wildlife not to be injured, for response vessels not to risk collision or waves from other boats – there is a limit to this. The Coast Guard actually wanted to impose a 300 ft limit but that was dropped to 65ft. Already media can’t fly lower than 3000 ft over the oil spill without special permission from the FAA. Now getting close to oil on the ground or in the water requires the Coast Guard’s permission.

Associated Press photographer Gerald Hebert says “”Often the general guise of ‘safety’ is used as a blanket excuse to limit the media’s access, and it’s been done before…It feels as though news reporting is being criminalized under thinly veiled excuses. The total effect of all these restrictions is harming the public’s right to know.”

Anderson Cooper, CNN‘s guy on the ground here, did a wonderful rant on this which includes the following:

“We’re not the enemy here. Those of us down here trying to accurately show what’s happening, we are not the enemy. I have not heard about any journalists who has disrupted relief efforts. No journalist wants to be seen as having slowed down the cleanup or made things worse.

If a Coast Guard official asked me to move, I would move. But to create a blanket rule that everyone has to stay beyond 65 feet away boom and boats, that doesn’t sound like transparency. Frankly, it’s a lot like in Katrina when they tried to make it impossible to see recovery efforts of people who died in their homes.

If we can’t show what’s happening, warts and all, no one will see what’s happening. And that makes it very easy to hide failure and hide incompetence, and makes it very hard to highlight the hard work of cleanup crews and the Coast Guard. We are not the enemy here.”

You can view this video to put the above into context. I might have to go watch him broadcast soon, just to tell him how great this was.


Tanya Gulliver is a freelance writer and is serving her third term as President of the Professional Writers Association of Canada. She is a PhD student in Environmental Studies at York University looking at disaster recovery and resiliency and is currently based in the Greater New Orleans Area. She is the co-author of the Toronto Book of Everything which provides fun facts, stats, and highlights of the city.