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Oil spill: Closed beach, open turf

beachclosed.jpg

Local authorities closed the beaches on Grand Isle after oil from the Deepwater Horizon oil rig explosion began to wash ashore. Photo by Patrick Semansky/AP

The wooden signs across Grand Isle read, “Beach closed.” We could’ve ignored them, could’ve followed a woman walking her dogs on the sand or accompanied a father and his sons as they approached the water.

But we didn’t. A colleague and I went through proper channels and arranged a tour of the beach with the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries. We had permission to be there. We had a guide.

Still, for a moment, it seemed as if we needed another organization’s permission as well: BP.

Because the company that caused the spill is also in charge of the clean-up effort, it was hard to tell at times during my week-long reporting trip to the Gulf whether it was BP or the government agencies that was in charge of the coastline. Amid all the Gulf oil spill coverage, this is not often mentioned: journalists have at times found themselves caught in small turf wars.

We saw a brief glimpse of this toward the end of our beach tour. We were on an ATV, crawling along the shoreline, when a man wearing a t-shirt labeled “Security” walked away from the clean-up crews he was supervising and headed toward us. He motioned for us to stop and told our guide, a biologist with Wildlife and Fisheries, that she had to drive higher up on the beach. She nodded to pacify him. He left. We continued on our way.

It’s her job to drive along the seven miles of beach every day, looking for oil deposits and wildlife in distress. She is most likely to see these things along the water, not away from it.

We hadn’t gotten far when a few minutes later, a second man jumped off an ATV and stopped us again. Another private security guard, he issued the same orders, but this time threatened that the Coast Guard would force us to leave. Again, our guide nodded. She was polite, but it was clear she was losing her patience. In a restrained tone, she explained that the Coast Guard would not have a problem with our route.

And they didn’t. When we ran into three Guard officers a few minutes later, they brushed off the threats from the private security force as ridiculous. They then told us what our guide already knew and what we suspected when we set up the tour: She could drive wherever she needed to.

By Theresa Vargas  | June 10, 2010; 10:05 AM ET
Categories:  Journalism  | Tags:  BP, Grand Isle, Lousiana, beach, oil spill  
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