‘Random’ Grotto closures slammed

Police chief says no random closures of diving spots, beaches

Businessman Harry Blalock is protesting the Department of Public Safety’s Boating Safety Section’s alleged random and arbitrary closures of the Grotto for the past six months, saying it is costing him and other dive shops and snorkel outfits thousands of dollars.

Blalock is planning to sue the CNMI government and DPS for deprivation of income, for stopping him from taking his customers diving at the Grotto repeatedly, for harassment, for making him lose a half day of diving to go to court, and for the emotional distress of being threatened with arrest.

Blalock owns Axe Murderer Tours-Saipan that operates scuba diving instructions and guiding.

DPS Commissioner James C. Deleon Guerrero said yesterday DPS does not randomly close beaches or diving spots as Blalock alleges.

“We initiate closure actions based on the conditions of our ocean water,” Deleon Guerrero said.

The commissioner said if the Boating Safety Section, and often with guidance from the CNMI Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Management, has determined that the water conditions present a risk to lives, then they will close beaches immediately.

Furthermore, he said, the issuance of hazardous surf advisory notices by HSEM are things that Blalock should take seriously.

Deleon Guerrero said while Blalock often complains about Boating Safety officers killing his business, he should be equally mindful about the potential injuries and deaths that may occur if he ignores posted closure signs.

“These are paying customers that he’s bringing down to the Grotto and he should concern himself more with the consequences of his actions than to constantly complain about our decisions to close the Grotto,” he said.

Also, Deleon Guerrero said, they have full authority under Section 5701 of Title 3 of the Commonwealth Code or Public Law 14-48 to initiate closure actions to ocean waters and that he strongly advises Blalock to comply with all posted closure signs.

In a posting on his Facebook page, Blalock said that Boating Safety Section sometimes base their closures of Grotto on small craft advisories from Emergency Management Office, sometimes on weather bulletins from Homeland Security, “and once in a great while they even bother to take a look down in the Grotto to see what it looks like.”

“Not that it makes much difference, because most of them have no clue what they are looking at or how to judge whether the Grotto is actually diveable or not,” Blalock said.

He recalled an incident several months ago when he was with customers and the Grotto was closed, but the conditions were perfect for diving. He said he asked a Boating Safety officer who happened to be in the area why they closed the Grotto when it was so calm.

Blalock said the officer explained that they often base the closure on small craft advisories from EMO and closes it even though it is fine for diving.

He said the officer stated he didn’t think they could legally stop them from diving, and told him if he wanted to dive to go ahead and just go around the sign, and that the risk and responsibility was on him.

Blalock said then one day a police officer “with an attitude” was waiting for him at the top of the steps and threatened to arrest him for breaking some law and diving at the Grotto when it was closed.

He said the officer told him he had to go to court and faced a fine and jail time, and that if he didn’t sign the ticket, he would put him in handcuffs and arrest him on the spot.

“I tried going and talking to his boss, but didn’t get any farther. They both wanted to make an example of me and see what happened in court,” Blalock said.

Blalock said he stopped diving at the Grotto every time it was closed over the next couple of months and lost thousands and thousands of dollars as a result.

Blalock said he went to court for his preliminary hearing last week, only to have the judge inform him that it was a non-citeable offense and they couldn’t fine him or do anything to him, and that he was free to go.

He said the representative from the Office of the Attorney General really had no good comment as to why he was there and why he had to show up in the first place.

“They both looked rather embarrassed that the police officer had threatened to arrest me and make me go to court,” he said.

Blalock said he told the judge he wanted a court trial anyway to expose what has been going on at the Grotto and to stop DPS from costing so many business so much money.

Blalock said the judge told the prosecutor that she needed to talk to the DPS commissioner and get this straightened out so that it stops happening.

He said he has also consulted a lawyer about the possibility of suing the government and DPS.

Blalock urged other dive shops that would like to join his lawsuit and make it a class action suit to let him know.

“It won’t cost you any money to get involved, but it may help to make up for some of the income that you have lost over the past six months of needless Grotto closures,” he said.

Blalock said he called DPS last week to know if the Grotto was open or closed because he had divers going there in the afternoon.

“I tried calling Boating Safety first, but they never answered their phone, which is quite common for them,” he said.

Blalock said an officer later told him that Boating Safety never closes the Grotto unless there is an accident there.

“I told him that was a blatant lie, and his department had better figure out what the heck they are doing. So I asked him again, is the Grotto open today? He said, yes, of course the Grotto is open today,” Blalock said.

He said he took the customers in the afternoon only to find an empty parking lot and the closed sign blocking the steps to the Grotto.

“It is unbelievable what is going on at the Grotto and that the Department of Public Safety has gotten away with this for so long. Legislators, are you paying attention? Attorney General’s Office, are you paying attention?” Blalock asked.

Ferdie De La Torre | Reporter
Ferdie Ponce de la Torre is a senior reporter of Saipan Tribune. He has a bachelor’s degree in journalism and has covered all news beats in the CNMI. He is a recipient of the CNMI Supreme Court Justice Award. Contact him at ferdie_delatorre@Saipantribune.com

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