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Six lessons from the BP oil spill

What the tragedy of the BP oil spill has taught us about regulations, technology, and how our energy diet must change.

(Page 7 of 10)

Their passion, properly channeled, could become a crucial element in future oil spill defense. Experts say that by tapping into local knowledge – and love – communities could formulate emergency plans to bolster what residents have criticized as a slow, inadequate government and corporate response.

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It's a lesson California learned in 2007, when a container ship crashed into the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge, releasing 58,000 gallons of fuel into the bay. Volunteers, desperate to help, rushed to the water's edge, creating chaos. "They had people running down to the beach, picking up oil with their hands and in T-shirts and towels," says Kurt Hansen, project manager for oil spill research at the US Coast Guard Research and Development Center in New London, Conn.

But in a potentially toxic environment, federal laws prohibit – and often thwart – even the best of intentions. In order to participate in cleanup efforts, federal rules require at least a 40-hour hazardous waste course. Mr. Hansen says response times could be significantly lowered if communities could draw upon a ready pool of trained volunteers.

In Alaska, a network of local fishermen and others was formed after the 1989 Exxon Valdez spill. They participate in frequent preparedness drills, and officials say they feel far better equipped to handle an incident if one should occur again.

Along the Gulf Coast, volunteers have rushed to beaches, buckets and booms in hand, with mixed results. Some have simply added to the chaos of the cleanup effort. Others are doing some good. One local environmental group, Mobile Baykeeper, has received nearly 10,000 phone calls from people across the country wanting to volunteer.

In tiny Magnolia Springs, Ala., fire chief Jamie Hinton says he began brainstorming ideas to protect his area's marshlands within days after the Deepwater Horizon explosion. Colleagues from neighboring cities told him to let the government handle it. "I said, 'Are they going to handle it like they handled Katrina, Ivan, the Valdez?' " Mr. Hinton recalls. "Thanks, but no thanks. The only people I trust are my people."

He has more than 400 hours of hazardous materials training, including booming instruction, but he has something else, too – a deep understanding of what he calls "my river." The waves sometimes reach more than a two-foot chop, so he scoffed when he saw BP workers affix a boom to barnacle-laden pylons with ropes. The wave action severed the stays and the boom floated away.

He found a kindred spirit in Mayor Charles Houser. Together, they decided to block their bay with barges, flanking them with layers of boom. There was only one problem: They'd gotten permission, but when they got ready for deployment, they were told they had to reapply or risk being fined or jailed. They complied, but agreed that if the oil came near, they would act. "Sooner or later, someone's got to do something," says Mayor Houser.