Dispatch From the Gulf Oil Spill: Breaking the Law to Save the Gulf

Jamie Hinton in front of Barges photo

Jamie Hinton, Chief of the Magnolia Springs Volunteer Fire Dept, considers the barges. Image courtesy of Philippe Cousteau.

With the well capped and BP's promise of a "static kill" in the coming days, a sense of optimism, while tempered, seems to be rising in some of the communities of the Gulf. But there is something else simmering amongst the people and communities here, a desire to do something, to take control and positively impact this tragedy. In the case of Jamie Hinton, Chief of the Magnolia Springs Volunteer Fire Dept, it meant breaking the law.I first met Jamie on my last trip to Alabama a week ago, he was standing proudly in front of three barges strategically placed at the narrow entrance to Fish River as it opens into Weeks Bay. Jamie explained that the barges were placed without the approval of the Unified Command which has jurisdiction over the situation and was thus arguably an illegal act. Jamie had initially tried to sell the idea to the coast guard and BP but had been ignored.

jamie and philippe cousteau in front of barges photo

Image courtesy of Philippe Cousteau.

The concept is pretty simple. Weeks Bay gets pretty rough and the booms that had been strung across the entrance to the river were constantly being swamped by waves. Jamie's idea was to place barges in front of the booms that would buffer the waves and create a calm pocket of water behind them so that any oil that slipped past could be more effectively stopped by the booms. Would it stop all the oil? No, but that wasn't the point. It would help and it was a symbol of a community fighting to save its environment in the face of stifling bureaucracy.

Jamie became a local hero and the State Attorney General called him personally to assure him that he would not be prosecuted. Jamie didn't wait around for someone else to fix his problems, he went out and did something: He took action.

Now it is important to note that Jamie didn't act rashly, or in a vacuum. He gathered the community and spent a few weeks developing a well thought out plan, did his best to go through the proper authorities and was stonewalled. Then they took matters into their own hands. Thomas Jefferson once wrote, "The tree of liberty must from time to time be watered with the blood of tyrants and patriots." Jamie was willing to fight to protect his community and stand up to what he sees as a form of tyranny.

Jamie is an exception rather than the rule but he has galvanized a whole community and gets letters from around the country of people who are inspired by his actions because he reminds us of our responsibility as citizens to act. But not all action is created equal.

I have seen the boycott BP gas station signs that do nothing but hurt small business owners, I have heard about other acts of vandalism or violence: These are not the answer. Thoughtful action is the key. If we want to boycott something it should be the plastic bottles of which we use enough each year to power nine million cars.

If we want to fight, we should fight the urge to consume the massive quantities of STUFF that we do every day. From food (the average American eats 260 pounds of meat a year) to energy (we are still the biggest carbon polluter on the planet). If we don't change; if we continue with business as usual, then we have to ask ourselves what will we say to our kids, to our families, our communities—to the world—when this happens again? We won't have the excuse of ignorance...only the shame of inaction.

Read more from Philippe Cousteau:
Dispatch From the Gulf Oil Spill: When Apologies Are Not Enough (Video)
Dispatch from the Gulf Oil Spill: The Slippery Fate of Bird Island
Dispatch from the Gulf Oil Spill: Navigating the Media Whirlpool

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