DESTIN, FL — Okaloosa County isn’t taking oil spill orders any more.
County commissioners voted unanimously to give their emergency management team the power to take whatever action it deems necessary to prevent oil from the Deepwater Horizon spill from entering Choctawhatchee Bay through the East Pass.
That means the team, led by Public Safety Director Dino Villani, can take whatever action it sees fit to protect the pass without having its plans approved by state or federal authorities.
Commission chairman Wayne Harris said he and his fellow commissioners made their unanimous decision knowing full well they could be prosecuted for it.
“We made the decision legislatively to break the laws if necessary. We will do whatever it takes to protect our county’s waterways and we’re prepared to go to jail to do it,” he said.
That freed Villani to take several actions deemed important to further armor the Destin pass without waiting for authorization from the state Emergency Operations Center in Tallahassee and the unified spill command in Mobile.
Commissioners gave him the go-ahead to spend $200,000 to pay for an underwater “air curtain” designed to push oil up where it can be collected and $16,500 a day to operate and maintain it.
He has authority to, without a nod from the U.S. Coast Guard, deploy barges, weighted so that they’ll sit low in the water across the entrance to the pass.
He is also authorized to look into a slip curtain, another underwater oil-catching device.
Though they now have the authority, both Villani and Okaloosa County Administrator Jim Curry said they will continue to work with the state and federal authorities to get their plans approved.
Curry said what the commissioners did Monday was “send a loud and clear message” to the Coast Guard, the state Department of Environmental Protection and others that Okaloosa County’s permit requests should be acted on immediately.
The commission met in an emergency meeting alongside the Destin City Council. The two governing bodies confronted a full room of obviously frustrated people, many of whom advocated filling in the entrance of the pass to close it down completely.
It was agreed that filling in the pass was a bad idea that could have serious environmental impacts.
Jay Prothro, BP’s representative for Okaloosa County, and two representatives of the Coast Guard were also present.
While Martha LaGuardia, a commander with the Coast Guard, argued that moving ideas and plans through the chain of command was the proper way to do things, Harris made it known the County Commission was tired of the often tedious and sometimes unproductive bureaucracy.
“We’ve played the game. We’re done playing the game,” he said.