NEW ORLEANS -- The Coast Guard has modified a policy on safety zones around boom deployed on oiled coastlines, a policy news organizations had said unnecessarily restricted coverage of the impact of the BP oil spill and efforts to clean it up.
In a statement Monday night, the government's point man for the spill, retired Coast Guard Adm. Thad Allen, said new procedures permit credentialed news media free travel within the boom safety zones.
"I have put out a direction that the press are to have clear, unfettered access to this event, with two exceptions -- if there is a safety or security concern," said Allen. "This boom is critical to the defense of the marshes and the beaches."
News organizations, including The Associated Press, had argued being kept at least 65 feet (20 meters) away from the boom impeded the ability to cover the spill.
Allen said that was not the intent of the restriction. "We need to discriminate between media, which have a reason to be there and somebody who's hanging around when we know that we've had equipment vital to this region damaged," he said.
Allen said the safety zones were created to keep boats from going over the top of booms or damaging it. Previously, news organizations were required to contact local authorities each time they wanted to go near boom.
The Coast Guard has provided frequent flights, boat trips and overnight excursions into the spill zone since the BP-leased rig Deepwater Horizon exploded April 20 and sank two days later. Still, AP and other organizations argued the boom zone restriction hindered the 1st Amendment constitutional right of freedom of the press.
Capt. James McPherson, a Coast Guard spokesman, said the service has provided "unprecedented media access to the largest oil spill response in U.S. history."
He said the revised policy "will increase the ability of the media and the public to see the response effort."