Norberto Santana, Jr.
A pioneering leader in the nation’s rising nonprofit news movement and an award-winning journalist. Santana has established Voice of OC as Orange County’s civic news leader, uncovered truths across Southern California governments for more than two decades and reported on Congress and Latin America. Subscribe now to receive his latest columns by email.
Whether it’s an oil slick or a pandemic, the first victim of every local disaster always seems to be the public’s right to know.
State and local authorities are OK with putting precious natural resources, like forests or oceans, in harm’s way to fulfill power needs.
Yet when these approaches create natural disasters like fires or oil spills, it seems the agencies funded by our tax dollars consistently fail to communicate the issues impacting people’s quality of life.
Much less explain to taxpayers what’s being done with the massive resources entrusted to government officials and agencies to fund crisis response.
It’s the one constant that keeps coming back to reporters and residents this week as we all try to piece together information about the massive oil spill that just took over Orange County’s coast this past weekend.
A Need to Upgrade Short, Non-Responsive Press Conferences
I thought the County of Orange press conferences were barbaric until I saw how the U.S. Coast Guard operates.
Yesterday’s press conference — all the way out in Long Beach for a disaster affecting the OC coast — lasted less than a half hour.
Reporters were shut down from asking questions by Unified Command officials, which include the Coast Guard, state Fish and Game officials — and the company who’s pipeline busted.
This is the same company that, according to federal investigators, took more than three hours to alert officials after internal alarms were going off.
Visibly frustrated state officials nearly admitted their unified command structure isn’t very responsive to public information — something that flustered the press corps.
They said they’re deluged with media inquiries about nearly 150,000 gallons of oil affecting the California cost.
Now, no matter how you cut it, that’s going to generate lots of questions.
And not one Voice of OC question has been answered through their official press channels.
The public has some idea of how this is really playing out — thanks to the aggressive questioning from our Southern California press corps, which has done a great job of pressing officials for key answers at the press conferences.
Yet, as usual, these agencies don’t seem well funded or trained to pull off robust public information campaigns during disasters.
Responding And Investigating The Spill
The few command center officials that are able to come out and talk to reporters this week haven’t been clear on how the disaster is being investigated and how it’s being handled.
Because no investigators are talking publicly at all.
Who knows what kind of dark bunker those folks are hiding behind.
All we have to talk to as a press corps — and thus as a community — are frantic wildlife officials, who are not staffed for robust media outreach.
It leaves them scrambling to answer questions and, in many cases, raising more questions than answering them.
For example, United Command officials fueled a ton of confusion explaining how Amplify Energy officials — who own the pipeline operation — were on the command response team.
It prompted Orange County District Attorney Todd Spitzer to publicly voice concerns about Amplify Energy investigating themselves.
At a Monday press conference, the audio on the Coast Guard’s Twitter account was barely audible (special thanks to our TV colleagues for streaming the conferences themselves recently to much better production value).
At that conference, Coast Guard and wildlife officials created the impression that Amplify was directing the efforts to look into their own equipment failing.
Yet by Tuesday’s press conference, officials clarified that the divers hired by the unified command to assess the wrecked pipeline were independent third party vendors.
But again, officials refused to discuss how those kinds of operations were structured.
Only after much pressure by reporters did those officials admit there are separate investigative efforts underway.
By the end of the press conference, Coast Guard officials admitted they could only speak to response issues.
They failed to say who could speak to the ongoing investigation and abruptly ended the press conference.
Who Knew What, When?
Coast guard officials have had a similar approach, creating confusion when answering questions on how the spill was reported to wildlife resource agencies.
They couldn’t answer reporters’ questions about why there were delays when visual reports of the oil slick starting coming in to a separate reporting agency – the National Response Center – late Friday night.
In very bureaucratic responses, Coast Guard officials just told reporters they followed procedures in following up with the reporting party, who did not engage.
Even scarier, Coast Guard officials basically told reporters that they get these kinds of visual reports on a frequent basis.
Documents Don’t Lie
Now, what didn’t create confusion was the corrective notice sent by federal investigators to the pipeline operator late Monday.
That notice included real-time information that the Coast Guard officials should have been in a position to give to reporters on the first day of the disaster.
Coast Guard officials have stated that they only started noticing oil slicks around 9 a.m. on Saturday.
But federal regulators say alarms were going off as early as 2:30 a.m. early Saturday.
According to federal investigators, pipeline operators didn’t shut down the pipe until around 6 a.m and didn’t notify people until about 9 a.m., which backs up the Coast Guard story.
But what isn’t clear is why the visual reports of oil slicks that were reported Friday evening were ignored or given poor follow up.
It’s clear that the ensuing delays made a critical difference for local disaster crews scrambling to get up defensive berms around sensitive habitats like Bolsa Chica or the Talbert Marsh.
Now, apparently, Coast Guard officials are offering some private briefings on conference calls — which make me suspicious of how they comply with our state’s transparency laws — to folks like state office holders and some OC officials.
One local official, OC Supervisor Katrina Foley, said she phoned in and the briefing didn’t offer any new information than was said at the press briefings.
That’s why state and federal laws allow the rest of us nobodies to depend on public documents.
In addition to public documents, mandated federal and state regulatory filings — and later trial attorneys — are also key for us as consumers and taxpayers to get any straight information at all.
Release All Public Documents on The Orange County Oil Spill
Which brings me to my last point for all those state and federal officials that have made it this far into this column.
By now, you have no doubt received reams of public records requests under state law and federal law for information on the oil spill off the coast of Orange County.
Don’t hold them up.
Just like you are sending in extra beach clean up experts from other areas, send clerks to process the mounting pile of public information requests to help state and local taxpayers understand what is happening for themselves.
Pointing reporters looking for answers to static state websites isn’t the answer.
Given how taxed the public information efforts are from these agencies, we all need access to raw documents.
In real time.
Now, more than ever.