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

Jason Linkins

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)

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.

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

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.

This is the world we live in. This is the world we cover.

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