The Tonka Report

Real News In A Changing World

Florida Keys Residents Begin Their Own Oil Disaster Cleanup Plan

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June 15, 2010: Nathan Thornburgh / Time via Yahoo News – June 14, 2010

A small island in the middle of a big ocean, Key West has always made a virtue of its isolation. In 1982, for example, an onerous Border Patrol checkpoint on U.S. Route 1, which links the Keys to mainland Florida, resulted in the island’s declaring itself the autonomous Conch Republic. This was, of course, mostly a joke (“We Seceded Where Others Failed” was its e pluribus unum), but the mayor’s declaration of independence did include a twinge of real anger and a vow that “we have no intention of suffering in the future at the hands of fools and bureaucrats.”

Now, facing the possibility that oil from the Deepwater Horizon spill could arrive on its reefs and beaches in the coming weeks, many in the Florida Keys are once again angry about perceived fools and bureaucrats. In particular, they’ve watched how BP has monopolized and, in the eyes of many, mismanaged the oil cleanup in the northern Gulf of Mexico and are frantically trying to organize an independent local response.(See pictures of the oil spill.)

“We cannot wait. We have to be prepared,” says Dan Robey, whose website has gathered 4,000 volunteers, including 300 boat captains, who have offered to help before and after any potential arrival of oil. As Patrick Rice, dean of marine science and technology at Florida Keys Community College, puts it, “We will not allow the inept responses that have been happening up north to happen here.”

But there’s a problem with their plans for grass-roots activism: BP (and the Deepwater Horizon’s Unified Command, which BP runs with the Coast Guard and other agencies) has so far insisted on complete control of the cleanup operations. A BP spokesman told TIME that the only appropriate way for interested boat captains to become involved would be to register with the Unified Command’s Vessels of Opportunity program. Never mind that according to BP’s numbers, only a third of the 7,200 boats “under contract” through the program are in active service. Robey says captains in the Keys haven’t even been able to register. “It’s a joke, a total joke,” he says. “Our people have called them for over a month. They don’t return phone calls.” (Watch TIME’s video “Portraits from the Oil Spill.”)

Uncertainty is another complicating factor. Locals want to start preparing now, even though it’s unclear how much oil will arrive and in what form – sheen, plume, tar ball or all three. And BP and the Coast Guard won’t start really organizing, or funding, a response yet. “The general feeling is that BP has been reluctant to support advanced preparation,” says Laura Fox, owner of Danger Charters in Key West. “The Coast Guard’s big party line is that until oil is imminent – within 72 hours – nothing is going to be done. That’s not enough time to protect the 180 miles or more of shoreline that we have in the Keys.”

So without waiting for protocol, the Keys are making preemptive strikes. A group called Adopt a Mangrove is assigning kayakers their own mangroves to clean if oil comes. Volunteers are monitoring shores throughout the islands for signs of oil. The Florida Keys Environmental Coalition formed to connect boat captains, scientists, environmental activists and various agencies. Fox coordinated a cleanup of Man Key, a mangrove island west of Key West (oil is easier to clean off a beach that is in good condition). “It was all women, actually,” she says. “Thirteen women in kayaks, clenching knives in their teeth, cutting monofilament fishing line off the mangroves and clearing trash. We brought 35 bags of trash off the island.”

Local boat captain George Bellenger and others set up a series of town-hall meetings at Sippin’ Internet CafÉ on Eaton Street, the last of which was attended by both Coast Guard and BP reps. It was at 8 p.m. on a Friday, traditionally not the soberest hour of the week in Key West, and Bellenger had called the Key West police department to see if it would help keep the peace. In the end, the police didn’t come. Bellenger had to throw one person out for “not showing respect to our [BP] guest,” but it was an otherwise calm event.

In May, Bellenger had heard through word of mouth (“the coconut telegraph,” as it’s known here) about a closed meeting between city officials and BP representatives and others. He and a few others showed up to complain about the lack of preparation and left with a promise that BP would pay $10,000 to fund hazardous-materials training for 100 people. It was, says Bellenger, one of the “two good things” that has happened with BP. The other: a towboat operator out of Big Pine Key was recently hired to be a sentry boat, keeping an eye out for approaching oil to the west of the Keys. (See pictures of people protesting BP.)

But everyone else is on their own for now. The Hazwoper haz-mat training that is a pre-requisite for handling oil spills can cost hundreds of dollars per person (although has arranged a discounted online course for $69). Florida Keys Community College offered a sold-out bird-cleaning course this past weekend, giving Keys residents practice on dead seabirds. But that course cost $150 per person and was not paid for by BP.

Advance planning would benefit BP as well: the Keys’ coral-reef ecosystem is unique and would require a different approach than the coastal marshes and beaches to the north. For example, chemical dispersants, already controversial in the northern Gulf, would be far too toxic for the coral, says Dave Hallac, supervisory biologist at the Dry Tortugas and Everglades national parks. Additional worries about the potential impact that unwitting contractors could have on the Dry Tortugas National Park caused the park service to “pre-negotiate” with the Coast Guard to insure that there would be park service advisers working with the contractors. (See pictures of the oil spill’s victims.)

The generic cleanup plans that existed before the spill will have to be reimagined as well. “The contingency plan we have with the Coast Guard is for the event of a tanker spill,” says Rice. “I asked [the Coast Guard] directly, ‘Do you have a contingency plan for oil at depth?’ They don’t.”

Rice is pushing his own solution that might help protect the most sensitive reefs and mangrove plants from oil beneath the surface: curtains of air bubbles from perforated air hoses laid on the seabed. “It would at least deflect the smaller tar balls and push the oil up the surface,” he says.

How receptive would the Unified Command be to trying out a clever hack like this from a local scientist? How much help would they accept from the captains who know the backcountry currents and channels best? If oil comes to the Keys, residents warn, BP had better be ready to work with them. “I just talked with BP yesterday,” says Rice. “I told them flat out, ‘If you come down here and start doing what you’ve done in Louisiana, you’re going to have a revolt. They’ll shut down U.S. 1. You won’t be able to bring any of your contractors in or out.’ ” Key West’s isolation may not protect it from the coming oil, but perhaps its independent streak will.

See 12 people to blame for the oil spill.

See pictures of critters caught in the oil spill.

The Tonka Report Editor’s Note: If BP contractors or their oil get anywhere near the Florida Keys it will be a dead zone for decades to come – SJH

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