Exxon's Unfriendly Skies: Why Does Exxon Control the No-Fly Zone Over Arkansas Tar Sands Spill?

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The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has had a “no fly zone” in place in Mayflower, Arkansas since April 1 at 2:12 PM and will be in place “until further notice,” according to the FAA website and it's being overseen by ExxonMobil itself. In other words, any media or independent observers who want to witness the tar sands spill disaster have to ask Exxon's permission.

Mayflower is the site of the recent major March 29 ExxonMobil Pegagus tar sands pipeline spill, which belched out an estimated 5,000 barrels of tar sands diluted bitumen (“dilbit”) into the small town's neighborhoods, causing the evacuation of 22 homes

The rules of engagement for the no fly zone dictate that no aircraft can fly within 1,000 feet of the ground in the five-mile radius surrounding the ExxonMobil Pegasus tar sands pipeline spillThe area located within this radius includes the nearby Pine Village Airport.

The Arkansas Democrat-Gazette revealed that the FAA site noted earlier today that “only relief aircraft operations under direction of Tom Suhrhoff” were allowed within the designated no fly zone. 

Suhrhoff is not an FAA employee: he works for ExxonMobil as an “Aviation Advisor and formerly worked as a U.S. Army pilot for 24 years, according to his LinkedIn page. 

Lynn Lunsford, an FAA spokesman, told Dow Jones a no fly zone was issued because “at least one” helicopter was needed to move clean-up crews around, as well as to spot oil that can't be seen from the ground.

“The pilot of the helicopter needs to be able to move about freely without potential conflicts with other aircraft,” he told Dow Jones.

This also means press is prohibited from the area, though Lunsford told Dow Jones that the FAA “is in the process of amending the restriction to allow news media aircraft into the area.”

When will news media be allowed back into the designated no fly zone area? That portion of the question was either never asked by Dow Jones or never answered by Lunsford. 

This comes one day after Arkansas Attorney General Dustin McDaniel said his office would be opening an investigation into the incident. It also comes one day after federal pipeline regulators barred ExxonMobil from restarting the pipeline until it receives close inspection.

It appears the Pegasus spill is becoming the BP Gulf oil disaster take two, with the responsible polluter running every step of the show

Here is a 5-minute clip of video taken (presumably before the no-fly-zone order took effect) by videojournalist Adam Randall over Mayfield on April 1, including footage of the impacted neighborhoods and surrounding areas (H/T LeeCamp)

Photo: AJ Zoltan on Facebook

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FAA flight restrictions over disasters are regular stuff.  It's so regular, it's in the CFR and Federal Aviation Regulations (FARs).

BUT:  1,000 feet isn't that bad; most urban television stations have helicopter or fixed-wing mounted cameras for which 1,000 feet is easily overcome with a flick of the telephoto zoom.

AND:  The actual regulation allows news gatherers to fly over, with the filing of a flight plan.  See here:  http://timpanogos.wordpress.com/2013/04/04/what-news-organizations-need-...

Now, I'm sure the Exxon-Mobil guy would prefer no one be there. That's not what the rules say.  A good news organization will have a lawyer on retainer who can get that rule enforced. 

Please spread the word to colleagues in journalism.  We need photos.

[quote] This also means press is prohibited from the area, though Lunsford told Dow Jones that the FAA “is in the process of amending the restriction to allow news media aircraft into the area.” [end quote]


Do these guys know their own rules?  Here's what the FARs say:

c. Section 91.137(a)(3). Restrictions issued in accordance with this section prohibit all aircraft from operating in the designated area unless at least one of the following conditions is met:

1. The operation is conducted directly to or from an airport within the area, or is necessitated by the impracticability of VFR flight above or around the area due to weather or terrain, and the operation is not conducted for the purpose of observing the incident or event. Notification must be given to the ATC facility that was specified in the NOTAM for coordination with the official in charge of the activity.

2. The aircraft is operating under an ATC approved IFR flight plan.

3. The aircraft is carrying incident or event personnel, or law enforcement officials.

4. The aircraft is carrying properly accredited news representatives and, prior to entering that area, a flight plan is filed with FSS or the ATC facility specified in the NOTAM. Flight plans must include aircraft identification, type, and color; radio frequencies to be used; proposed times of entry to and exit from the TFR area; the name of news media or organization and purpose of flight.

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