NEW ORLEANS — Media organizations say they are being allowed only limited access to areas impacted by the Gulf oil spill through restrictions on plane and boat traffic that are making it difficult to document the worst spill in U.S. history.
The Associated Press, CBS and others have reported coverage problems because of the restrictions, which officials say are needed to protect wildlife and ensure safe air traffic.
Ted Jackson, a photographer for The Times-Picayune newspaper in New Orleans, said Saturday that access to the spill "is slowly being strangled off."
A CBS news story said one of its reporting teams was threatened with arrest by the Coast Guard and turned back from an oiled beach at the mouth of the Mississippi River. The story said the reporters were told the denial was under "BP's rules."
U.S. Coast Guard and Federal Aviation Administration officials said BP PLC, the company responsible for cleaning up the spill, was not controlling access.
Coast Guard officials also said there was no intent to conceal the scope of the disaster. Rather, they said, the spill's complexity had made it difficult to allow the open access sought by the media.
Coast Guard Lt. Commander Rob Wyman said personnel involved in the CBS dispute said no one was threatened with arrest.
Vessels responding to the spill are surrounded by a 500 yard "standoff area" with restricted access, he said.
"If we see anybody impeding operations, we're going to ask you to move. We're going to ask you to back up and move away," he said.
BP contractors are operating alongside the FAA and Coast Guard at command centers that approve or deny flight requests. Charter pilots say they have been denied permission to fly below 3,000 feet when they have reporters or photographers aboard.
Those special flight restrictions, imposed on May 12, cover thousands of square miles of the Gulf and a broad swath of Louisiana's coast. Normally there are no restrictions on flying.
The chief of the Coast Guard's public affairs programs branch said access had been hampered by a cumbersome approval process that stretched all the way to the White House.
Chief Warrant Officer Adam Wine said White House officials had to sign off on requests for tours of the spill zone before they could proceed. The Coast Guard is attempting to increase access through guided boat and aircraft tours, he said. Still, there is no plan to lift restrictions on flights or boat traffic into offshore areas – including some barrier islands.
White House officials referred questions about their involvement to Wyman. He said Wine's description of the chain of command was incorrect and that all requests from media were decided on by the command center in Robert, La. The Department of Homeland Security is notified, he said.
Two weeks ago, oceanographer Jean-Michel Cousteau was turned away from waters near a wildlife sanctuary after the Coast Guard discovered a reporter and a photographer from The Associated Press were on board.
Jackson, The Times-Picayune photographer, said he had been kept back from oil-covered beaches and denied a request to fly below 3,000 feet.
"The oil spill from there is just a rumor," he said.
FAA spokeswoman Laura Brown said hundreds of flights related to the recovery effort go each day into the restricted airspace. She said aircraft from the oil industry and law enforcement also are allowed in those areas.