Mary Alice – Commission Response: The Escambia County Commission and the Gulf Coast Oil Spill

Thank you for viewing my presentation. Here's what I would like to know from you: Have you ever worked with disaster response efforts, and in what capacity?  Did you have any interaction with the local governing officials as they responded to the disaster, if so, what was your experience? How might we be able to better prepare local governments for unforeseen disasters, and help their local action plans be put into action?

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- Mary Alice

Informative Speech Final Revision, April 14, 2011

Mary Alice Mathison

Commission Response: The Escambia County Commission and the Gulf Coast Oil Spill

To inform

As a result of my presentation, my audience members will be able to explain how a local governing body, the Escambia County Commission, responded to, dealt with, and learned from the Gulf Coast Oil Spill. 


[pp: cover slide] Let me begin this speech with an exert from the 1990 Final Report on the Exxon Valdez Spill by the Alaskan Oil Spill Commission and the Exxon Valdez Oil Spill Trustee Council.  [pp: Exxon Valdez Spill] “No one anticipated any unusual problems as the Exxon Valdez left the Alyeska Pipeline Terminal at 9:12 p.m., Alaska Standard Time, on March 23, 1989. The 987foot ship, second newest in Exxon Shipping Company's 20-tanker fleet, was loaded with 53,094,510 gallons (1,264,155 barrels) of North Slope crude oil bound for Long Beach, California. Tankers carrying North Slope crude oil had safely transited Prince William Sound more than 8,700 times in the 12 years since oil began flowing through the trans-Alaska pipeline, with no major disasters and few serious incidents. This experience gave little reason to suspect impending disaster. Yet less than three hours later, the Exxon Valdez grounded at Bligh Reef, rupturing eight of its eleven cargo tanks and spewing some 10.8 million gallons of crude oil into Prince William Sound. 

“Until the Exxon Valdez piled onto Bligh Reef, the system designed to carry 2 million barrels of North Slope oil to West Coast and Gulf Coast markets daily had worked perhaps too well. At least partly because of the success of the Valdez tanker trade, a general complacency had come to permeate the operation and oversight of the entire system. That complacency and success were shattered when the Exxon Valdez ran hard aground shortly after midnight on March 24.”

I tell you this story to bring to light that 21 years and 27 days later the worst case scenario that happened in Alaska was surpassed in magnitude, right here in our own backyard, by the Gulf Coast Oil Spill.  Not only that, but essentially the response and clean up efforts were insufficient according to this report and the complacency apparent in 1989, occurred again in 2010. 

While there are still many ‘should ofs’, ‘would ofs’, and ‘could ofs’, ‘if this’ and ‘if that’s’, there are many stories surrounding the Gulf Coast Oil Spill that provide interesting insight and revelation as to how we can learn from this most recent disaster.  The area we will look at today is the Escambia County Commission’s response to the Gulf Coast Oil Spill.  Although the response efforts did not always run smoothly, now we have an opportunity to learn from the past.  We will begin by looking at the Escambia County Commission’s initial response to the Oil Spill, the unfortunate circumstances the County Commission encountered, and where the Commission stands one year from the Spill.  


I.  Response to Oil Spill

[pp: Picture of County Commission] An interview with County Commissioner, Grover Robinson IV, provided much needed insight into the events that occurred last spring.  Being a governing body, the County Commission had great concerns last April when the Gulf Coast Oil Spill occurred.  Just as in a hurricane, the County Commission tried to take action.  Generally before, during, and after a hurricane, the County Commission deals with the emergency management and the disaster relief, and then if necessary the federal government and private companies might step in.  Thus, when the oil spill occurred and knowing how vital the actual environment is to the economy of our county, the Commissioners wanted to take preventative measures to safe guard as much of the area as possible.

            A.  Creating the Local Action Plan

            Mr.  Robinson provided a timeline of events that highlighted the County Commission’s actions.  A week after the oil spill and after careful consideration, on April 27, 2010, the County Commission recognized the need to begin an extensive strategy to guard the Escambia County area.  April 29, Escambia County declared a state of emergency, and April 30, the State of Florida declared a state of emergency.  On May 1, the County Commission had finalized the Local Action Plan, an extensive plan that sought to protect the inland water ways of Escambia County.

            B.  Summary of Local Action Plan

[pp: Local Action Plan] According to the Local Action Plan, the Pensacola Bay Area is the 4th largest estuary in the state of Florida.  Why is this important?  An estuary is a body of water where a river meets with the ocean or Gulf of Mexico for our purposes, and it is an essential ecological environment that produces nurseries and sanctuaries for many of the fish and wildlife that can be found along the Gulf Coast.  If we don’t have the nurseries for the fish, then the numbers eventually can be affected in the larger area of the gulf where then the commercial fishing could be affected.  Keeping this in mind, along with the fact that there are 36 miles of beach to cover, versus the small inlet into Pensacola Bay, Commissioner Robinson and others felt it was necessary to focus on what they could protect more of.  The Local Action Plan essentially was organized to set out boons and communicate with skimmers and helicopters to patrol the mouth of the bays and other inland water ways, hopefully preventing large amounts of slick from entering the water ways.  It was thought that since the County Commission was so familiar with its own area that it would be able to provide outsiders with better perspective on how to prepare to protect this particular area.  The County Commission recognized that within the region there was a diverse area that would be affected and wanted to provide outsiders with as much insight on this area as possible.  With an uncertain timeline of how long it might take slick to reach our water ways, the County Commission hoped to implement its Local Action Plan as quickly as possible and proposed its plan be carried out by the federal and private groups that were working on the cleanup efforts. 


However, implementing this plan would be much more difficult than the County Commission may have expected.

II. Unfortunate Circumstances

            Despite the efforts of the County Commission to provide a specific course of action to take to protect the inland water ways, the Local Action Plan was shot down by the federal government and private companies working on the clean up.  Seeing that there would be no cooperation by the federal government or private companies at the time, the administrators of Escambia County took matters into their own hands.

            A.  Working Without Help

            For at least two months the County Commission had workers out in the water ways trying to prevent any worst case scenario from occurring.  Using helicopters and skimmers the County attempted to enact the Local Action Plan to the best of its ability, but it was limited.  The uncoordinated efforts with the federal response and private companies, along with consistently malfunctioning radios resulted in poor communication only aiding the frustrations of how the spill was being responded to.

            B.  Returning to the Local Action Plan

            However, someone finally did take notice of the Local Action Plan, and in July began to aide in the clean up through the recommendations of the County Commission. 


A year later there is still a lot that can be learned from the County Commission’s efforts during the initial onset of the response.

III.  One Year Later

            A.  Results of Local Action Plan

            Although the Local Action Plan was not instituted by those in charge when it was first created, when it finally was it showed that the local response can offer critical insight to the areas affected during disasters because locals have firsthand knowledge of their own environment.

            B.  Commission’s Continued Action

            [pp: Picture of Clean Up] Now, as the oil has begun to weather and dissipate, the County Commission still has many concerns ahead, especially bearing the burden of responsibility in the beach restoration.  Although BP is supposed to be footing the bill and providing cleanup crews and machinery for large tar mats found under the surface on the beach and in the shallows, as Kimberly Blair of the Pensacola News Journal reported last week in her article “BP Tackling Tar Mats Off Coast,” the County Commission is continuing to have difficulty with BP following through in its promises to clean up.  Following the lead of Orange Beach, Alabama, the Escambia County Commission is looking at hiring a private company to handle the tar mats and then send the bill to BP.    The County Commission does not want to waste time in its cleanup efforts, and if BP is slow to respond the County Commission is going to take matters into its own hands to protect and restore our environment. 

            C.  What’s Been Learned

            Although we cannot change the events of the past, we now have an opportunity to learn from history and how we might be able to change the events of the future.

                        1.  Never Ending Hurricane

                        When I asked Grover Robinson what it was like when the County was trying to implement the Local Action Plan on its own, he referred to it as a “never ending hurricane.”  In many cases that is exactly what it was, except that in this case there was a centralized, top-down model of response being used which in many ways neglected the immediate needs and concerns of specific areas of the Gulf Coast.  As Mr. Robinson noted, during a disaster such as a hurricane response efforts begin at the local level and then work up if needed.  Even though federal and private response would have been needed during this disaster, if a more similar module to a hurricane relief effort had been used, perhaps the needs of a diverse region could have been better met.

                        2.  Diverse Disaster Area

                        [pp: Picture of region] Reflecting on this response effort, it has become evident that the vast area this disaster covered is both diverse in its needs, and also as a region very interconnected.  Mr. Robinson indicated that in the end a total of 5 states and 27 counties (7 in the State of Florida) were affected.  That covers over 100,000 square miles, ecosystems from beaches to marshes, and everything from petroleum slick to weathered tar balls.

                        3.  Awareness

                        In light of this event Mr. Robinson hopes that it can bring about awareness of several different concerns.  The first concern is that we continue to address safety and the environment, that what we do as humans has far reaching impacts on how our environments in which we live can be effected. Secondly, that we should develop an understanding of the safeguards we need to have in place to prevent or prepare for potential worst case scenarios.  Whether that is on the rigs where emergency shut off valves are in place, or the coast where local communities have Local Action Plans already on file, safeguards and precautions if anything can help with more immediate action in case of a disaster.  Also, he recommends we improve our awareness of our regional ties to one another, especially as political jurisdictions.  Clearly, in this disaster of the Gulf Coast Oil Spill not all the states affected had approved off-shore drilling, but all of the states of the Gulf Coast saw detrimental effects to their environments regardless.  How can the states become better connected as a region?          

                        4.  Hope

                        With this last question, Mr.  Robinson speaks for many when his best hope is that we learn from this disaster that we are interconnected both through our environments and our politics, and that as a region we can come together to address the issues that can potentially affect us all who call this area of the country home.



[pp: Beach Image] Today we addressed the Escambia County Commission’s response to the Gulf Coast Oil Spill, the unfortunate circumstances the County Commission encountered, and where the Commission stands one year from the Spill.  For a governing body that prides itself in providing the best possible environment for its people, it was a frustrating debacle during much of the response in the preventative measures attempted to protect our inland water ways because the County Commission’s recommendations were overlooked by the federal and private groups that headed up the response effort.  However, despite setbacks, what the County Commission’s efforts have shown is that they are willing to use the unfortunate circumstances of last spring to learn for the future.   Clean up and restoration will continue to be an issue that the County addresses, but hopefully through these efforts increased awareness and preparedness can not only sustain within our own community, but be ever present throughout the region.  Most importantly we now have another opportunity to be proactive instead of complacent, let us be unlike the story of Exxon Valdez and not wait another 21 years and 27 days until another worst case scenario occurs, because who knows, we might not have to even wait that long.


(2011, February 24). My Escambia.  Retrieved from

Blair, Kimberly.  (2011, March 8).  BP Tackling Tar Mats Off Coast: County Officials; Clean Up

Effort Too Little Too Late.  Pensacola New Journal.

Escambia County Board of Commissioners (2010, May 4).  Escambia County Florida Local  Action Plan: Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill.  Retrieved from


Robinson, Grover IV.  Personal Communication.  February 10, 2011.

State of Alaska.  (1990).  Details about the Accident: Spill; The Wreck of the Exxon Valdez, Final Report Alaska Oil Spill Commission.  The Exxon Valdez Oil Spill Trustee Council. Retrieved from