AT THE PORT OF L.A., NEIGHBORS ARE LAST TO KNOW
by Robert Gelfand
American Reporter Correspondent
San Pedro, Calif
LOS ANGELES, July 10, 2006 -- An emergency that occurred at the Port of Los Angeles on Friday, July 7, raises interesting questions about the relationships between public agencies, the media and the public. Curiously enough, the issue in this case does not revolve around information being withheld from the media, but from the people.
To local residents of San Pedro, it became apparent around 1:30 p.m. that something was happening down in the harbor. Fire trucks and paramedic ambulances drove through town and assembled on a side street adjacent to the fireboat terminal. It was clear that this wasn't the usual drill. There were so many trucks and ambulances that an entire block was packed with red vehicles.
Rumors spread, although it must be admitted that the locals didn't appear to be too terribly concerned. They are hardy people who understand the dangerous nature of dock work, and their reaction was more like bemused detachment and simple curiosity.
One story that circulated was that a ship's onboard oxygen tank was leaking and presented a fire hazard. This unlikely scenario is flawed on careful consideration - how many ships would be carrying a large enough amount of compressed oxygen to present such a hazard? But in the absence of definitive information, this was the conventional wisdom of the hour. At least we knew that it was a problem on a ship.
The Fire Department suggested a voluntary evacuation from the area within a third of a mile (or half a mile; stories varied) from the afflicted ship, although for the public, it wasn't entirely clear why. Ship explosions in the past century have taken as many as 500 lives in a single blast.
For local residents, the flurry of activity was a reminder of concerns that have been prevalent in the community for some time now. In fact, the police, Coast Guard, fire department, local neighborhood councils and the port have been meeting for more than a year in a group called COPSS, which stands for the Committee on Port Safety and Security. COPSS recently held a public forum in which it discussed its goals, one of which includes the preparation of an evacuation plan for the region adjacent to the harbor. As of that meeting, the plan remained unfinished.
The COPSS presentation also made clear that our emergency services have achieved a rare level of interagency cooperation which allows all the commanders to communicate with each other within moments of an alarm. It also became obvious that there is no equally efficient mechanism for alerting the public to a developing danger.
It was clear that participants felt the need for a system that would inform the public about any developing emergency. The COPSS meeting certainly did not convey any sense that information should be withheld from the public for our own good.
However, there certainly was no clear-cut message available to the public on Friday as we watched the situation (or what little we could see of it) unfold. Quite to the contrary, as I was to discover.
As of 2:30, with little information available to the public and a solid swath of rescue vehicles extending from 5th Street to 6th street, I entered the administrative building for the Port of Los Angeles to inquire about the situation. I asked the officer behind the desk a simple question: "Is there a press release available about the incident, and is there going to be a press conference?"
The reply was curious to say the least. Her first response was to ask whether or not I was a member of the news media. Being interested in how the Port of Los Angeles would treat a local citizen rather than the official media, I told her, "Only with the Internet." She asked if I had identification, whereupon I showed her my drivers license. This provoked a further response that could reasonably be termed chilly.
She got on the phone, spoke to somebody, and finally gave me this answer: There is no press release, and the situation has been downgraded. In response to further questions about what was happening, I was told that the port would not give this information to "just local residents."
As one of the people who would be impacted by an explosion in the harbor, and therefore, in my view, deserving of an honest response, I repeated my question. It was the same stonewall: "They're not going to give that type of information to just a local resident." Would she identify herself by name? "No."
So at this point, we had established that the port administration would not tell the public what was happening.
The experiment continued. I dropped in on James Allen, publisher of the local independent newspaper, the Random Lengths News, and told him my story. Within minutes, he had somebody from the port administration on the phone, got the location of the ship and learned from the port administration's public relations people what they believed to be happening.
Even at that point, the situation remained a little uncertain, as there was still confusion about the source of oxygen aboard the vessel. We did learn that the ship, a tanker, was registered under a flag of convenience, the Marshall Islands. Who knows what safety standars prevail there?
But we had now established that the port would talk to the official representatives of the press, if not to us common folk.
Several hours later the rest of the story came out, first on television and later in an online article by the Daily Breeze's Donna Littlejohn ("Tanker incident ends safely in the Port of Los Angeles"). She explained the incident in a way that made more sense:
The ship Probo Elk was tied up at Berth 118 in a terminal run by the Kinder Morgan company. Its cargo of 215,000 gallons of gasoline was scheduled to be offloaded and transferred by pipeline to local refineries.
Ships carrying volatile, explosive cargoes such as gasoline typically use an anti-explosion system that works as follows: Some fairly inert gas such as nitrogen is pumped into the tanks above the liquid cargo to displace any remaining air. The purpose is to keep the level of oxygen low enough to prevent any possible ignition. That system had failed.
The Probo Elk's alarms went off (as early as 3:30 a.m., according to the Breeze story), it indicated that the level of oxygen in some of the gasoline storage tanks was rising. In other words, it wasn't a leak from some compressed oxygen tank (as rumor had it), but rather the leak of air into the cargo storage tank.
Air contains oxygen, and hence the somewhat misleading explanation that a ship was "leaking oxygen" - yes, it was leaking oxygen, but the oxygen was leaking in, not out. As a scientist, I know this is a far more dangerous situation than losing a little oxygen from a storage container - there is a huge amount of energy locked up in 215,000 gallons of gasoline, and in the presence of air, a spark could set it off.
According to Littlejohn's story, the fire department treated this as a potential hazard out of an abundance of caution and reacted "by the book." They claimed to have had things under control by late afternoon.
Here's my first question: If things were under control, why was the port administration so unwilling to answer a simple question from a member of the public? By the time I made my inquiry, it was close to 12 hours since the start of the incident. My second question is equally simple: If the port and city government are committed to openness on matters of the public safety, why didn't they have an answer for members of the public who might be expected to inquire? If they really wanted to ease public fears, they could even use one of those telephone voicemail blasts to reach every household with a telephone in a two-mile radius in a matter of minutes - as some smaller cities do in emergencies.
Notice that we are not talking about terrorism or a matter of military security here, but something much closer to the concerns of the workers and families in the port area - the concern over a fire or explosion that may sometimes occur in the normal course of business at one of the world's busiest seaports. The issue would be the same for any area containing an airport, a chemical plant, or another seaport.
James Allen of Random Lengths had a counter-argument to my suggestions: In an emergency, the port or other civic agency might get thousands of phone calls; they have to make some choices in that situation, so limiting their remarks to the working press would be the most efficient way of getting word out to the public. However. it is also an after-the-fact rationalization, and there was no evidence they got even a few calls in addition to mine.
This is certainly a legitimate point, but the situation at the time didn't seem to match this scenario. I seemed to be alone in inquiring about the situation, and it was a direct personal inquiry, not a telephone call. The secretiveness of the port seemed to be a reversion to an older style that the port has supposedly been working to overcome. Friday was not a banner day for the new openness.
There is one additional issue that we might wish to consider here. There is an ongoing argument about whether Internet writers or, indeed, any and all members of the public are entitled to the same rights and protections as members of the working press. The debate initially arose in a legal context over the question of whether owners of Internet sites are protected by the same "shield laws" that allow newspaper reporters to protect the identities of their sources. A California court that considered the question defined the work of Internet writers as identical to those of the "working press."
The context in the current discussion is admittedly different, but I would suggest that it underscores a basic philosophical question: Is there some hierarchy of rights when it comes to First Amendment freedoms, so that members of the public are considered inferior in some way to paid reporters?
Or, to the contrary, could it be that our concept of freedom of the press is really just another way of saying that all Americans have the right to ask questions of the government, and to disseminate what we find out?
The latter seems closer to the ideals of 1776: The press, as defined by the First Amendment should be any or all of that body referred to as "We The People."
AR Correspondent Robert Gelfand is a biochemist by training. Write him at amrep535 (at) sbcglobal.net.