Journalists covering an Arkansas oil spill in a suburban neighborhood said they were threatened with arrests, kicked out of the disaster site and had to seek permission from ExxonMobil to fly over the evacuated area.
An ExxonMobil pipeline ruptured in Mayflower, Ark., on March 29, causing 22 homes to be evacuated in the small town located north of Little Rock. So far, more than 19,000 barrels of oil have been collected.
Over the weekend, MotherJones reported that journalists on the spill site were threatened with arrest.
A group of about 10 journalists were touring the spill site last week with state Attorney General Dustin McDaniel when a couple minutes into the tour, local law enforcement officials ordered the journalists to leave immediately or risk arrest, said Michael Hibblen, the news director for local NPR affiliate KUAR and one of the journalists on the tour.
“Suddenly, deputies from the county came yelling that ExxonMobil does not want us on the property and we must leave immediately,” Hibblen said in an interview Monday. “Several of us asked who we could talk to about this, but they said that if we didn’t leave within ten seconds we’d be arrested.”
Hibblen said McDaniel's office and the county administrator gave him permission to tour the site with the attorney general. Hibblen said the group of journalists left the site. McDaniel's office declined to comment, and the Faulkner County Sheriff Department did not immediately return a call for comment.
“Any time you restrict the media or even remotely give the appearance that you’re hiding something, people become a lot more intense about finding out what’s happening,” said Hibblen, who added that journalists seemed to have more access this week.
However, Hibblen said that reporters could not even access the site for the first nine days after the spill. On Sunday, THV11, the local Gannett news station, reported that they were finally allowed to film the damage site.
In a separate incident, InsideClimate reporter Lisa Song said she also was threatened with arrest while visiting the command center at the spill site. Song said a guard let her in. According to an InsideClimate news story, Song was looking to interview an Environmental Protection Agency or Department of Transportation official when Exxon spokeswoman Kim Jordan spotted the reporter and told her to leave. A second person arrived and told Song she would be arrested for criminal trespass if she did not leave right away, InsideClimate reported.
The Mayflower Police Department did not return calls for comment, and ExxonMobil declined to comment.
Journalists also complained that they had to seek permission from ExxonMobil to fly over the disaster site. Immediately after the spill, the Federal Aviation Administration restricted the disaster area's fly zone. All aircraft flying below 1000 feet — mainly helicopters — could only access the site after first getting permission from Tom Suhrhoff, an ExxonMobil aviation adviser, said FAA spokesman Lynn Lunsford in an interview.
The restrictions, which were dropped Friday, were for safety reasons, Lunsford said.
“There was a number of aircraft that were jockeying for positions over the most interesting parts of the oil spill, and as a result it was creating an unneeded safety problem,” Lunsford said.
The FAA placed the ExxonMobil official in charge because it did not have an air traffic controller in that area, Lunsford said. Suhrhoff's role during the restriction was not to grant permission but to coordinate when and where aircraft could fly over the area, Lunsford said.