The most enterprising story, amid the far-flung news coverage of last week’s ruinous leak of acrid, viscid, noxious oil that fouled miles of Santa Barbara’s splendid coastline, disclosed a disturbing and intriguing fact:
The pipeline that spewed the toxic stuff onto the beach and into the water is the only one in the county not equipped with an automatic shut-off valve.
The reasons why, which should surprise exactly no one who’s not recently arrived from Uranus, derive from decades of fierce anti-regulatory efforts by the courts and Congress.
First, the oil companies that installed and operated the pipeline used their legal muscle to deny local regulators the authority to supervise it; today, the only agency with any jurisdiction is the (all rise) federal Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration.
Thanks to anti-government crusaders in the House and Senate, who despise the very notion of regulation, however, all-mighty PHMSA (which, as every schoolchild knows, is pronounced “pisma”) apparently is so underfunded that it’s skimped on sending staff representatives to regular inter-agency safety meetings held in Santa Barbara.
“We’re flying blind,” said county Energy Division czar Kevin Drude…According to Drude, the equipment the county requires of other pipeline operators is so sensitive it can detect the loss of 20 barrels of oil over a 20-hour period. By contrast, the Plains pipeline leaked about 2,500 barrels worth of oil in a matter of a few hours before the company’s crew manually shut it down.
As Governor Gandalf might say: Dantur opes nulli nunc, nisi divitibus.
One for the J-school textbooks. The scandal came to light through the intrepid efforts of Nick Welsh, the wizened executive editor of the weekly Santa Barbara Independent, who published it just two days after the ooze started flowing at Refugio State Beach (full disclosure: at least half of your Calbuzzards write a freelance state politics column for the paper).
Beyond its immediate news value, the story is significant as part of a post-MSM journalism case study that the environmental incident provides.
As a political matter, last week’s accident received widespread media attention, less because of what happened – a relatively small amount of oil defiled beaches, killed and tormented wildlife – but more because of where it happened; another Santa Barbara oil spill, orders of magnitude larger, famously birthed the environmental movement, in 1969.
As a media matter, the event is noteworthy as an illustration of how news is gathered and disseminated in a digital world of niche operations and fragmented audiences: much of the most crucial information did not originate with huge and well-financed national outlets; rather it made its way up the news food chain, from small but energetic and highly motivated local enterprises.
Luddites and weenies: A community of fewer than 90,000 residents, Santa Barbara is a kind of media petri dish. Without a truly dominant news source in town, a small collection of startups, “alternative press” reporters and a few mainstream outlets scrambled to tell a big and fast-moving story for modest-sized and largely distinct audiences, while local citizens and out-of-town reporters alike grazed over their offerings to piece together a complete picture.
The tale of Welsh’s scoop is instructive. While others in his small newsroom moved aggressively to cover the breaking news, he worked the phones and scanned documents to excavate and master the complex and confusing details about the broken pipeline’s operation by the Texas-based Plains All-American oil company.
With less than 24 hours before the paper’s weekly deadline for its print edition – still by far the primary source of its ad revenue – he had to break his hurry-up investigation on the Independent’s website, however.
A Luddite throwback type, Welsh was pained to miss the dead-tree edition which, because of print deadlines, published with a full color cover boldly trumpeting some local theater awards. Only a small, last-minute strip headline signaled to readers that the paper had any coverage of the town’s biggest story of the year.
As Welsh and colleagues kept updating on the web, the MSM meanwhile engaged in some throwback behavior of its own – ripping off his story without any credit.
Two days after the Independent posted the piece online, the AP’s Brian Melley rendered his own version, which doubled back on Welsh’s sources, for benefit of a national audience. The powerful wire service put it out without a word acknowledging where the story originated.
Oleaginous icon: Lara Cooper, a reporter and photographer for Santa Barbara’s online-only Noozhawk fared better in getting credit where credit was due.
With even fewer reporters than its competitor, Noozhawk offers its readers a strictly local, meat-and-potatoes daily report that includes a strong focus on community news (“Refugio oil spill inspires hands-on learning project for Ellwood students” was the hed on one of its folos this week).
Tom Bolton, the site’s editor, is another old-school type who’s morphed into an online impressario. He’s one of those guys who likes to sleep with a police scanner, and was quick to dispatch Cooper, apparently the first newsie on the scene (she later described smelling the stench of oil from inside her car, more than a mile away; at first, she thought her engine might be imploding).
Cooper swiftly saw, captured and posted an image of a guy, standing in oily thick water and trying to reach a befouled waterfowl while his buddy strained to keep him from falling into the oleaginous mess. Hustling for a hyper-local, start-up site, she managed to produce the iconic photo of the event, which was picked up by the Wall Street Journal, The Guardian and CNN, and ran four columns across the top of the Washington Post’s front page..
For another distinct audience, the local aggregation site Edhat linked to a range of primary information: top stories from various news organizations; press releases from politicians and Plains; updates from the public agencies, led by the Coast Guard, working on the clean-up.
It also carried out another key function of the digital era, serving as a public square for local reaction and opinion, by hosting the most lively comment board focused on the disaster.
More bodies into the breach: All that said, the nonpareil importance of financial resources was demonstrated anew in the comprehensive and contextual coverage of the By God L.A. Times.
Located 90 miles from Santa Barbara, the LAT launched a fair-sized platoon of reporters and photographers, emerging as the daily newspaper of record for the Refugio spill. Although the paper’s newsroom has endured multiple rounds of cuts in recent years, it still boasts roughly 500 employees, and did a nice job of covering all quadrants of the story, with breaking news, color, analysis and enterprise.
(Surprise, surprise, it also stiffed the Independent by rolling out its own version of Welsh’s excloo, a yarn that carried three – 3, count ‘em, 3 – bylines, without a word of credit to the veteran local scribbler’s outfit).
Among the highlights of the LAT’s coverage was a lovely, first-day scene-setter by Steve Chawkins, the paper’s last staffer based in Ventura County, which adjoins Santa Barbara.
On the sand, Peuyoko Perez, an auto parts driver from Ventura, sang a mournful ode — a “willow song,” as he called it — in a Chumash dialect. He said he was paying homage to nature and to the sea, and was pleading for willow-like flexibility among conflicting interests in cleaning up the mess and preventing future disasters.
“This is an attack against the land, animals, fish, human beings — and I’m tired of it,” he said. Amid darkened clusters of seaweed, he looked out at the ocean. He said he planned to burn sage later in the day for cleansing.
We await with interest a folo on how the sage burning is working out.
On the political front, it was left to our old pal Cathy Decker to put the accident in context, with an analysis comparing it to the 1969 catastrophe.
But there is another, more positive reason why this disaster may prove less politically meaningful: So much of the organizational hard work was accomplished back then that there are fewer fixes to make.
In the wake of the 1969 spill, governmental agencies were created to protect the environment; their workers stalked the beach in white suits last week, replacing the volunteers who in 1969 tossed hay at the sea to soak up oil. Environmental groups sprang to life and have stayed potent.
Decker also noted that offshore drilling has become a settled issue in California, with drill-baby-drill conservative Republicans who choose not to follow the moderate path established by former Governor Pete Wilson, routinely getting stomped in statewide elections.
Paging Senator Carly and Governor eMeg…