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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.

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“I don’t care if it’s sweet, sour, light, or black,” he says. “I don’t want it in my river.”

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Others told him the government would handle it. He scoffed. He remembered the Exxon Valdez, hurricane Katrina, hurricane Ivan. If anyone was going to save Magnolia Springs, it wouldn’t be the feds, BP, or environmental activists. It would be the thousand-odd people who live here. After all, the locals knew the water – knew every twist and turn of Magnolia River, Fish River, and Weeks Bay. They would handle things the way they always did – together.

While the community struggled to get its plan approved by Deepwater Horizon Unified Command, BP workers arrived with their own plan: They laid a straight line of boom across the bay, tied it to pylons with rope, and left. Hinton tried to tell them the pylons were encrusted with barnacles, but no one listened. He knew the tossing waters would cause the sharp shells to sever the rope, and he was right. The boom floated away, and Magnolia Springs was left defenseless once more.

Instead of being discouraged, he redoubled his efforts, and by mid-May, the town’s plans had been approved, along with a $200,000 grant to keep the barges manned 24/7 – a Coast Guard requirement – for three weeks. All that remained was the decision about when to put the plan into action.

Jumping through hoops

Last Wednesday, that moment came. Hinton called the Alabama Department of Environmental Management and told them the time had come to deploy the

“They acted as if they’d never heard about it,” he says. “We started jumping through hoops to get the plan approved again.”

Hinton and Mayor Charles Houser conferred. If the small-town fire chief blocked the bay without permission, he could be jailed or fined, but he was willing to take that chance.

In a way, the decision was an easy one. There is a timelessness to the marshes of Magnolia Springs, where ospreys glide across the water and cottonmouths slither through pitcher plant bogs. It is “the most beautiful place on earth,” Hinton says, and he wants his grandchildren to see it – just as it is now.

Friday afternoon, Hinton learned his plans had been approved once more, backed by another grant that should allow them to keep the barges in place for as long as three months if necessary.

“We’ve done all we can do,” he says.

The uncertainty leads to sleepless nights for both Hinton and Mayor Houser, who says he’s confident about their course of action but still feels a queasy tension. He’s frustrated by BP’s overall plan for the Gulf Coast, calling it confusing and disjointed, with no clear chain of command.

“I’ve been in meetings with BP and they seem like they live in a vacuum,” he said Friday as he stared out at the water. “They just don’t get it. How can you replace this? It’s our little slice of heaven.”


IN PICTURES: The Gulf oil spill's impact on nature