How an Alabama fire chief risked jail to save town from Gulf oil spill
Jamie Hinton, the volunteer fire chief of tiny Magnolia Springs, Ala., has a plan to use a blockade of barges to stop the Gulf oil spill from entering the Magnolia River. For a time, he went ahead with the plan, even though it might have landed him in jail.
Magnolia Springs, Ala.
Admittedly, the Gulf Coast hamlet of Magnolia Springs, Ala., is an easy place to overlook. Here, the mail is still delivered by boat, and the closest thing to a seafood industry is standing in line for blackfish at Jessie’s, the only restaurant in town.Skip to next paragraph
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President Obama did not put it on his itinerary this week, and when BP workers showed up in mid-May, they laid a single strand of boom across the mouth of the bay and left. The boom floated away hours later.
Magnolia Springs isn’t exactly a linchpin of the Alabama economy.
Yet if the Gulf oil spill arrives here this week as scientists have forecast, it will not find the town unprepared. A flotilla of nine spud barges – flanked by containment boom – will be waiting, ready to block the 530-foot-wide entrance to Weeks Bay.
If all goes according to plan, these rusted steel behemoths will form an impenetrable barrier, defending the estuary’s 19 federally-protected species and the vital marshland which serves as a nursery for shrimp and other seafood so crucial to the Gulf Coast region.
They will also preserve an unspoiled way of life.
The blockade is being led by Jamie Hinton, the local volunteer fire chief who, at one point, was faced with the possibility of being jailed for violating the federal and state chain of command.
His resourcefulness is a parable not only of how desperate Gulf Coast communities have become to save the shorelines on which their lives have taken root, but also of the confusion that can consume and undermine such a massive relief effort.
In the end, Magnolia Springs did not need BP or Mr. Obama or the governor in Montgomery. It needed the grit and determination of the people themselves – people like Hinton, who says he will stand chest-deep in the waters of the bay, linked arm in arm with his neighbors, if that’s what it takes to stop the encroaching oil from despoiling the sublime latticework of bogs and bayous that he calls home.
Soft-spoken and polite, Mr. Hinton doesn’t fit the image of a rabble-rouser, but still waters run deep. He is passionate about this wildly beautiful place.
The plan he has been charged with implementing was the product of exhaustive community input. It is an attempt to defeat those forces of nature that have often defeated the Coast Guard and BP elsewhere. Boom is effective when placed properly, but even in relatively calm waters, some oil will always go over and beneath it. In Weeks Bay, where there is a constant one- to two-foot chop, booming is an extra challenge.
That’s where Hinton’s barges come in. Hinton hopes they will break any wave action, allowing the boom laid in front of and behind them to hold the oil.
It’s not a fail-safe plan, Hinton acknowledges. He would know. He has more than 400 hours of hazardous materials training, including booming instruction. “Can’t say [the oil] is going to make it through and can’t say it won’t,” he says.
But at least it’s a plan. Nobody else seemed inclined to do much of anything for Magnolia Springs, he says. When he first began gathering resources, county officials told him he was blowing things out of proportion, that it was just sweet crude.