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Oil Spill Media Access: Reporters Still Given the Runaround Even as Public Health Concerns Mount

by Jason Linkins

The latest chapter in the media's ongoing struggle to cover the Gulf Oil Spill comes courtesy of PBS Newshour's Bridget Desimone, who has been working with her colleague, Betty Ann Bowser, in "reporting the health impact of the oil spill in Plaquemines Parish." Desimone reports that on the ground, officials are generally doing a better job answering inquiries and granting access to the clean-up efforts.

In this May 30, 2010 file photo, BP PLC CEO Tony Hayward's reflection is seen in the lens of a TV camera as he talks to reporters while visiting a Coast Guard command center in Venice, La. Despite promises of transparency, the U.S. government continues to hamper media coverage of the worst environmental catastrophe in U.S. history. (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert, File) But Desimone and Bowser have encountered one "roadblock" that they've struggled to overcome: access to a "federal mobile medical unit" in Venice, Louisiana: "The glorified double-wide trailer sits on a spit of newly graveled land known to some as the "BP compound." Ringed with barbed wire-topped chain link fencing, it's tightly restricted by police and private security guards."

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services set up the facility on May 31. According to a press release, the medical unit is staffed by "a medical team from the HHS National Disaster Medical System -- a doctor, two nurses, two emergency medical technician paramedics (EMT-P) and a pharmacist."

For over two weeks, my NewsHour colleagues and I reached out to media contacts at HHS, the U.S. Coast Guard and everyone listed as a possible media contact for BP, in an attempt to visit the unit and get a general sense of how many people were being treated there , who they were and what illnesses they had. We got nowhere. It was either "access denied," or no response at all. It was something that none of us had ever encountered while covering a disaster. We're usually at some point provided access to the health services being offered by the federal government.

From there, Desimone describes the runaround she and Bowser were treated to, in terms with which you are no doubt familiar with by now. When Desimone finally got to speak with Ron Burger, the "Medical Unit Operations Chief for HHS's National Disaster Medical System," she was told that the facility had been treating responders and could not or would not confirm or deny that any area residents had been treated there or turned away.

Concerns over public health in the Gulf region run high. Experts in the field have called for a "coordinated approach to monitoring and researching affected populations." And residents of the region continue to worry about the near-term effects of the clean-up effort and the long-term health impact the oil spill will have on the seafood. They have good reason to be concerned:

One of the first things BP did after oil started gushing into the Gulf was to spray more than 1.1 million gallons of a dispersant with the optimistic name "Corexit" onto the oil. Then BP hired Louisiana fishermen and others to help with cleanup and containment operations. About two weeks later, over seventy workers fell sick, complaining of irritated throats, coughing, shortness of breath and nausea. Seven workers were hospitalized on May 26. Workers were engaged in a variety of different tasks in different places when they got sick: breaking up oil sheen, doing offshore work, burning oil and deploying boom. BP officials speculated that their illnesses were due to food poisoning or other, unrelated reasons, but others pointed out how unlikely these other causes were, since the sick workers were assigned to different locations.

Burger also told Desimone that the facility was being run under the auspices of the "national contingency plan." I'll remind you for the eleventy billionth time that National Incident Commander Thad Allen specifically directed officials on the ground to grant access to the media, in what appears to be the most widely unheard or ignored set of orders in the world.

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