On their own
Following the explosion of British Petroleum’s (BP) Deepwater Horizon oil rig on April 20, BP and the federal government undertook a massive response to contain and clean up the resulting oil spill. However, residents of the small town of Magnolia Springs, Ala., decided they could not wait for the company or the national government to protect Weeks Bay, a delicate ecosystem near the town. So, Magnolia Springs Volunteer Fire Department Chief Jaime Hinton led a crew of locals to park barges at the mouth of the bay to protect oil booms from waves that would otherwise overtop them. Hinton spoke with American City & County about the genesis of the plan and why residents thought they needed to take action.
Q: What steps did you take to protect Weeks Bay?
A: Basically, where we’re situated isn’t but about 10 nautical miles from the Gulf of Mexico, and there’s a pass that pretty much leads straight to us. [We] had our first meeting the first Saturday in May, planning on what we would do to protect our bay — which includes the estuary, two rivers and several tributaries — from the effects of the oil spill. The first thing we knew right off the bat was that, where we are situated, we regularly get anywhere from a foot to two-foot wave action. It didn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out that if you only have an 8-inch-high [oil] boom and you’re getting wave action in excess of 8 inches, water and oil is going to easily wash over it.
Our biggest issue was how we could break the wave action so that the boom could do what it was supposed to do. We had ideas, like tying logs together across the mouth of the bay to make our stand to knock the waves down. There were a whole lot of ideas that came up. We settled on using the barges to break the wave action up at the mouth of the bay. There wasn’t engineering involved, it wasn’t rocket science, and there wasn’t any calculations or physics involved. It was pretty much just common sense.
Q: Why was it necessary for the city to do this? Did you try to get in touch with BP or the federal government to take care of this?
A: We did early on. We’re a small town, our population is 764, I believe, and the fire department’s a small, volunteer department, so we don’t have a lot of funding. So, I started collecting what resources I could get early on. About three days into that, I was called by a neighboring chief who told me that I didn’t have anything to worry about, that the federal government was going to be in charge of it. I didn’t mean to be sarcastic with him, but I said, ‘Well, are they going to handle it like they did Katrina and the [Exxon] Valdez spill?’ Basically, I told him that the only people I depend on are me and my people. I know their capabilities, and I know what we do. Not that I don’t trust anybody else to do it, but I know that I’m aware of the capabilities of our fire department and the people who were helping us out, and I knew the whole time, knowing from the hurricanes we have down here, the first 72 hours are on you — that there’s not going to be any help because it’s 72 hours before they can get here. So, that’s kind of the way I focused on this. It was going to be 72 hours after the incident, and it was such a catastrophic incident that poor little old Magnolia Springs and Weeks Bay is just going to get lost and forgotten.
Q: What would the impact of the oil spill be on the bay and on the town?
A: The estuary is, by far, the biggest place of impact. This is an estuary that’s full of marsh grass where the water inundates the marsh grass and the fish, the minnows and the small shrimp, this is where they grow up. This is where they hatch, and they’re able to hide in the marsh grass in order to grow up and get out further. That’s probably the biggest thing we’re protecting. We’ve also got bald eagles in the area and the osprey, which is on the endangered species list. We’ve got endangered plants that are in the area. These are all things we’re protecting in the estuary.
Now, from the commercial standpoint, we’re not a town based on shrimping and fishing charters or even tourism. But, a lot of the locals who live in Baldwin County come to use the two rivers [that flow through the town] for recreation, as far as fishing and swimming and skiing and stuff like that.
Q: Have any federal authorities contacted the city about what you did?
A: Actually, initially we got word that nobody was to do anything without permission of unified command. And, trying to get in touch with unified command is, by far, a difficult task. I have yet to get through on the 1-800 number we have that nobody else has. That was when we collectively made the decision that we were going to protect our bay, our estuary and our rivers, no matter what the cost. And, if they decided that, when we did it, they were going to have to fine us or take somebody to jail, they were just going to have to put handcuffs on me and haul me off. That’s just how strong I feel about it. I’m not going to allow the oil in the marshes, I’m not chancing that here. Actually, the attorney general of Alabama said nobody [would put me in handcuffs] as long as he was in charge.
Q: How much did this operation cost the city?
A: It’s [about] $150,000 for three weeks for the barge rentals.
Q: Has the city made any plans to get reimbursed by BP?
A: Yes, we are. Actually, they provided a grant to the state, which would now provide funding for our part. It’s really been a good deal, thanks to the national media. We have gotten a lot of attention since the national media got involved. We never saw a BP contractor until two days after it hit the national media, and now we’ve got more people than we can stand running around on site willing to help from BP, from one of their contractors. That has been one of the greatest things.