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Idyllic river threatened by spill — and red tape

Image: Magnolia river in Alabama
A kayaker paddles down the Magnolia River in Magnolia Springs, Ala., Monday, June 7, 2010.Dave Martin / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

It's hard to imagine a spot with more to lose from the Gulf oil spill than the Magnolia River. Gnarly trees shroud its slow-moving waters, rich with crabs and mullet. Docks have mailboxes; letters are delivered by boat. Seafood boils with friends are a weekend staple.

Jamie Hinton loves this place, just like everyone in this idyllic community off Mobile Bay, and he wants to do all he can to protect it from what he and others see as a twin threat — oil and bumbling on the part of both government leaders and corporate executives.

Hinton, chief of the Magnolia Springs Volunteer Fire Department, said Monday he spent three weeks tangled in bureaucratic red tape before finally getting approval to do something that's never before been needed, much less tried: using a combination of barges and oil-blocking booms to keep crude out of the Magnolia River.

On Sunday, the new system was finally in place at the mouth of Weeks Bay. Locals hope it will safeguard both the Magnolia River and the nearby Fish River, where the U.S. Postal Service operates what locals proudly call the nation's last waterborne mail route.

"What you've got here is a community that has taken charge of the situation and said, 'To hell with the system,'" said Gib Hixon, an old friend of Hinton and chief of Fish River/Marlow Fire and Rescue.

"It's illegal to block this waterway. But if the oil comes, we're going to bring a barge in and use it as a gate to block it," said Hixon. "They can arrest me and Jamie if they want to."

'Just light crude'
The story began when Hinton called his local county emergency management office to ask about plans for protecting coastal waters and was shocked by the response.

"The first thing the guy said was, 'People are blowing this thing out of proportion, it's just light crude," Hinton said. "I told him I don't care if it's light crude or dark crude or sweet crude, I don't want it in my damn river."

Baldwin County officials deny that anyone ever told Hinton such a thing. But whatever happened, Jamie Hinton was fired up.

Hinton and other leaders got together to kick around ideas for safeguarding their river shortly after the Deepwater Horizon rig exploded on April 20 and sank in the Gulf of Mexico off the Louisiana coast.

Someone suggested using barges at the mouth of Weeks Bay to block waves out of the adjoining Mobile Bay, then adding layers of boom.

"It's not rocket science, but it sounded like it might work," Hinton said. The engineering didn't seem that hard since the passage into Weeks Bay is only about 530 feet wide and fairly shallow.

"That protects the Fish River and the Magnolia River. I thought, 'that's awesome,'" he said.

Waited and waited
Community members honed the plan, and Hinton set out to find barriers to supplement the single strand of narrow boom that BP provided, a meager allocation Hinton called "overly ridiculous."

He submitted the blueprint in mid-May believing he'd get an answer quickly from the unified incident command in Mobile.

And then, with the oil oozing toward the northern Gulf Coast, Hinton waited. And waited. And waited.

After fits and starts, supposed approvals and later balks, Hinton finally got the OK last week on his fourth try to protect the river just as oil began washing ashore on Alabama beaches.

With a $200,000 allocation from the $25 million that BP gave Alabama for oil spill response, rented barges, a tug and other barriers are now in the water.

So far, no oil is in Weeks Bay or either river, but the slick hasn't gotten to the barrier yet.

If and when it does, Hinton and the mayor will make the decision to close the bay and block off access to the Magnolia River.