Florida, Bureaucracy, and the Oil-Spill Cleanup

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Who's the Boss? The chain of command for oil spill recovery efforts. Roberto Gonzalez / Newsweek

Wayne Harris, chairman of the Okaloosa County, Fla., board of commissioners, was ready to go to jail. The county’s engineers had a plan to protect a crucial inland bay from oil, but had spent days waiting for the green light. The plan included several floating barges, a submerged oil-catching curtain, and a wall of air projected from an underwater pipe. State and federal authorities had so far not accepted or rejected the idea, which could cost more than $2 million in the first month. And under federal law, BP and the Coast Guard would have to approve the plan, unless the county wanted to risk footing the bill.

Then, in mid-June, Harris talked to fisherman who told him they spotted oil a few miles off Okaloosa County’s coast. With the environmentally sensitive bay threatened and just layers of floating boom (which had been only partially effective in other areas) protecting it, Harris decided to publicly defy the chain of command. He and the other commissioners voted to move forward with the plan without approval from BP or the Coast Guard. “Finally, we said we don’t care if we’re breaking federal law,” Harris says. “We’re going to protect what’s ours.”

Florida officials are used to protecting their own: frequently in the path of hurricanes, responders in the Florida Panhandle in particular know how to handle an emergency. When a storm comes, predesignated officials activate emergency centers in each county, working with state officials and the Federal Emergency Management Agency to coordinate resources but also making quick decisions, locally, to deal with the damage. Now, as the oil spill continues through its third month, county officials are straining against the federal rules for an oil-spill response. Since April 20 the oil spewing from deep beneath the Gulf of Mexico has proven taxing for BP and federal authorities in charge of controlling it. To describe what the federal response is lacking, county officials use a phrase familiar to military types: command and control. In other words, everybody needs to know who’s in charge, and the people in charge need to know what everyone else is doing.

Granted, no catastrophe of this magnitude has yet tested the oil-spill response plans drawn up as a result of the Oil Pollution Act—the law passed in 1990 after the Exxon Valdez disaster. Few imagined a spill affecting such a vast, populated coastline where every inch of beach matters to someone. But instead of walking a practiced path, BP and federal officials (known as the Unified Command) have conjured some aspects of response to the current spill from scratch and changed them daily, trying but often failing to act with the speed and decisiveness an emergency demands. “We’re on the quickest learning curve I’ve seen in my career,” says Dino Villani, Okaloosa County’s public safety director. “They’re planning for an expansion daily, but the [spill] is happening exponentially and so they’re becoming more and more behind.”

The problem, at least from where Villani and other local responders sit, is the fact that Unified Command is the only authority. When a hurricane hits Florida, county-level officials can move resources if they see worse damage on one side of town. But with BP and the Coast Guard controlling the oil-spill response, a county-level official can’t make a decision without making a phone call and waiting for several other layers of command to approve it. Want to move a boom from one side of Pensacola Pass to the other? Until recently, the procedure looked like this: ring the state’s emergency operations center, who will call Unified Command in Mobile, Ala., who may or may not call top officials in New Orleans—all while folks in Florida wait for a return call. (In mid-June, Unified Command delegated some authority to Coast Guard officials working at the state level.)

Even that tiered system would be fine, Villani and other Florida county officials say, except that Unified Command has at times not responded to requests—like Okaloosa County’s multilayered plan to keep oil out of Choctawhatchee Bay—for days or weeks. “We’ve learned not to let anybody else carry the ball for us, because [it] usually doesn’t get carried,” says Grover Robinson, chairman of the county commission in Escambia County, Florida, which has spent nearly $10 million responding to the spill.

Moving personnel around has ameliorated some of the problems. Coast Guard and BP have added representatives at emergency operations centers in Florida, a change designed to quicken headquarters’ response to requests from the coastline and improve Unified Command’s control of contractors cleaning the beach or driving boats offshore.

County officials acknowledge that communication had improved, but they insisted that “command and control” must exist at the local level. Cmdr. Charles Diorio, a Coast Guard spokesman, countered that centralized command for a response that spans four states has its benefits. “If we look at it from the viewpoint of one particular county, we may lose track of the bigger picture,” Diorio said. In addition, BP and the Coast Guard are in charge because that’s the protocol under federal law. The Stafford Act, which deals with emergencies like hurricanes, does not apply to oil spills.

More than wanting control, though, county-level responders worry about another pressing problem: they’re running out of cash. The same system that allows speedy communication during a hurricane response also guarantees counties will be reimbursed for emergency costs. Not so for an oil spill, under current federal law. By various accounts, BP has already changed its procedure for reimbursing local governments five or six times. In late June, several Florida counties had faxed claims to BP and were still waiting for a check to replenish emergency cash needed during hurricane season. “We already have active storm systems out there and we’re spending money that we don’t have,” said Capt. Mike Barker of the sheriff’s office in Walton County, Florida, where oil has come ashore.

gal-tease-worst-enviro-disa The World's Worst Man-Made Environmental Disasters: Click on image for gallery

The day after Harris publicly offered himself as a martyr for arrest (a move Villani called “a shot across the bow” of Unified Command), Florida’s Department of Environmental Protection and the Coast Guard approved Okaloosa County’s plan to protect the bay. But the ideas have hit even more snags. BP never agreed to pay for the barges or the underwater oil curtain, and the county scrapped the plan when its engineering firm said it wouldn’t be able to anchor the oil-blocking barges securely. Nearly two months after the spill began, BP has said it would pay for two other options: $200,000 in startup costs for an underwater air wall (pumped through a pipe on the sea floor and, theoretically, pushing oil to the surface) and $300,000 for a ring of heavy-duty boom that would encircle the entrance to Choctawatchee Bay. That boom will need concrete pilings to keep it in place, meaning the county now needs a permit from Army Corps of Engineers. County officials also want to be sure BP will foot the bill for maintaining those barriers—the air curtain alone could cost $500,000 per month to run. Each step adds more days.

“We’re looking at intercepting the oil for quite some time and we want some pretty effective systems to do so,” explains Tom Campbell, president of Coastal Planning and Engineering, the firm executing the plan. Despite the disjointed response to the spill, Florida’s beaches have escaped the fate of the oil-soaked parts of Louisiana. Globs of degraded oil, or “tar balls,” and even mats of oil have washed up in northwest Florida. Cleanup crews removed some of those within hours or days of impact, in some cases allowing tourists to return to the beach. Folks in the Panhandle wonder what would have happened—and what will happen—if more oil floated their way.

Follow the author on Twitter or contact him at ryan.tracy@newsweek.com.

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