By Gerald Baron: Crisis and emergency communication strategies
The status of the Joint Information Center as a means of coordinating emergency public information has been uncertain ever since May, 2010. That's when the White House threw out 20 years of rules, regulations, plans and training in the Gulf oil spill, throwing BP the responsible party out of the JIC and instituting ESF 15, the construct of the National Response Plan, in its place. The idea of a company or Responsible Party (RP), playing any sort of meaningful role in public communication about a major event such as an oil spill seemed destroyed.
This was confirmed by the actions of the EPA in the July, 2010 Enbridge Michigan spill, where the EPA included every agency participating in its list of Unified Command participants, except Enbridge who was actually serving as the Incident Commander. The EPA then directed the government communications without any involvement of Enbridge. Similarly, the ExxonMobil Yellowstone River spill in 2011 followed the same independent pattern, with the new development of the State of Montana very visibly removing themselves from Unified Command and the Joint Information Center.
…On March 29, the Pegasus pipeline owned by ExxonMobil broke spilling at least a few thousand barrels of crude oil. ExxonMobil issued an initial press release on Friday from the company. In this release they said they were working with the Arkansas Department of Emergency Management and that EPA (the lead responsible federal agency) had been notified. So far, so good.
As expected a Unified Command was established and on March 31 the release the members of Unified Command were identified:
Unified Command, which includes the EPA, Arkansas Department of Environmental Quality, Arkansas Department of Health, Faulkner County and ExxonMobil Pipeline Company.
At that time, the logos on the release showed ExxonMobil (first and most prominent), Faulkner County and the City of Mayflower. The release comes from "Mayflower Incident Unified Command." Those of you familiar with JIC operations, particularly under Oil Pollution Act of 1990 and the National Contingency Plan would start to see this as very, very strange. For these reasons:
- The Responsible Party does not usually take such a prominent and high profile position in the JIC and its releases. Further, I was told by a Reuters reporter who talked to the JIC that the phone number was Exxon's and it was staffed by ExxonMobil. That's not normal.
- There is prominent, complete and very good information about the spill including the JIC-issued releases, but ONLY on the ExxonMobil website. Very strange. Try as I might, I cannot find any references to the spill on any EPA website. There is no information on the Arkansas Emergency Management website, and the Arkansas Depart of Environmental Quality has a brief reference directing visitors to the JIC.
- Despite the fact that EPA and state agencies are identified as part of the Unified Command, they are not identified as part of the JIC.
What the heck is going on here?
The question I got from Reuters was "Is it normal for a Responsible Party to run and control the JIC?" Well, no, it is not. And I don't think it is a positive that it sends that message. So here are some questions I hope someone involved can answer:
- Is ExxonMobil really in control of the JIC to the degree it appears? If so, why?
- If not, why is ExxonMobil communicating that it is, and more importantly, why are the Unified Command members not objecting?
- Where is the EPA? This is a big issue given its relationship to Keystone (crude oil --tar sands no less). Why are they not communicating? If they are part of the JIC, why in drastic comparison to Yellowstone and Michigan, are they allowing Exxon to run the show or allowing them such profile?
- Where are the state agencies? Why are they contributing to the impression that Exxon is in complete control? Is that good for them, or for Exxon?
- Since Faulkner and City of Mayflower are deferring communication about the event to the JIC, why are they allowing the impression of an Exxon controlled event?
The Mayflower incident follows neither previous patterns. The Responsible Party is either in full control, or allowed to communicate that it is in full control by Unified Command. And that is very, very strange.
To read the full article, see: Emergency Management Blogs at: http://www.emergencymgmt.com/emergency-blogs/crisis-comm/Arkansas-pipeline-spill-offers-040313.html