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Waiting for Oil

By James Call


Tallahassee, FL – Along the Forgotten Coast and Big Bend of Florida, the ominous threat of oil lurks out of view, threatening the bays, marshes and sea grass beds that serve as an incubator of life. James Call reports a sense of frustration is growing among residents with the way BP and federal and state officials are responding to the disaster.

Department of Environmental Protection Secretary Mike Sole has provided bi-weekly updates to the governor and executive cabinet since the April 20th explosion that created an ecological catastrophe. Plans call for more than 800-thousand feet of absorbent boom to be deployed across the Panhandle to the Big Bend.

"Our inlets are smaller, so we have the ability to do what we call collection booming, trying to divert product into certain areas so we can skim it and get it out of there before it gets any further into the bay, and some deflection booming trying to keep it out of the inlet itself. So that's the approach we've taken. The counties have worked with us, both on BP's plan and trying to bolster that and our supplemental booming. We're trying to get a little more aggressive in these inlets to keep it out of our bays."

A race is on to block contamination of bays, marshes, and sea grass beds. They are the nurseries for many forms of life that make up an ecosystem people value for its beauty and ability to provide food. It's where zooplankton, the beginning of the food chain, occurs. It's where Ronald Lee's family has harvested fish, clams and oysters to feed countless other families for more than a hundred years.

"When your income is cut completely in half, I mean it's hell."

Lee is standing outside a BP claims office in Wakulla County. Gulf seafood isn't selling and he says booming off inlets and marshes doesn't work. He's seen pictures from Alabama and Louisiana. Lee wants to seal off Florida's passes and bays with a wall of rocks.

"Thirty miles from here you've got four rock pits. You can't tell me you can't get trucks, two or three-thousand trucks down here hauling rocks to close those passes, where nothing will get through there, completely close them. I mean it'd be the easiest way to stop, just like that truck going right there. You get two or three thousand of them hauling rock down there, you could close it where no oil could get through and let the islands catch the oil. Then, clean the islands up instead of letting it get in the bay."

Lee is among the more than 34-thousand Gulf Coast residents who say they've lost work because of the oil spill. BP has paid out more than $49-million to help, but Lee said he would like to get back to doing what he does for a living -- working Florida waters. His barrier of rocks is one of many proposals filtering up to decision makers. Attorney General Bill McCollum wants to experiment with some of the alternative methods to clean up the oil, but he said there is a lack of urgency in addressing the unfolding disaster.

"The BP representative said it's going to two weeks before the skimming vessels get there. I read some piece in the paper where Admiral Allen said that we are going to not be able to draw down other skimming vessels, although I hear there may be three-hundred more somewhere else in the coastal waters that are not in the Gulf because maybe there might be some incident that might occur there. Might! We've got an incident in the Gulf of Mexico. Incident? It's a catastrophe!"

McCollum is talking with DEP Secretary Sole. His criticism is echoed by county commissions and residents from Escambia to Jefferson County. They complain about problems getting information to and from the disaster response team. CFO Alex Sink continued McCollum's line of questioning at a recent Cabinet meeting.

"Tell us about the decision making process is. I see the expression on your face. That's what we are all so frustrated about. This other impact could be generations to come. It could destroy the fisheries in the whole Gulf for decades. They can figure out a way to clean our beaches, but I'm not sure they can figure a way to replenish our fishery stock."

That stock is more than just food. It also adds more than a billion dollars to Florida's economy. For many North Floridians, it has provided a way of life for as long as anyone can remember.

"It's our way of life, the seafood industry. I mean without that, there's nothing for us to do. Nothing."