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DEP chief Mike Sole is Florida's point man on the oil spill

Right now, Mike Sole ought to be busy restoring the Everglades. Or cleaning up Lake Okeechobee. Or figuring out where Florida's future water supply will come from.

As the secretary of the state Department of Environmental Protection, that's some of what Sole is supposed to be working on. But since April 30, when the governor declared a state of emergency, Sole has had his hands full with the Deepwater Horizon oil spill.

On that day, the 46-year-old ex-Marine became Florida's point man on the environmental disaster. It occupies his every waking hour. Ever since the oil began gushing, "every day is a Monday," Sole said.

And even if the cap BP lowered Thursday continues to stop the oil, his job remains a huge one.

Usually he starts his days at 6:45 a.m. at the state's Emergency Operations Center in Tallahassee, "and the phone rings all the way until 11:30 at night."

He has spent many of the past 80-plus days at the center of a bureaucratic tug-of-war. On one side he has been tussling with Coast Guard and BP officials and BP's various contractors, trying to pry loose resources for Florida that other states also are demanding. On the other side, he has been harangued by local officials seeking more booms and more skimmer boats for their stretches of shoreline.

Sole has complained about being assured in the evening that skimmer boats will be in place in the morning, only to find in the morning that they didn't show up. But he now says the system is better, and people on all levels are communicating better.

Every afternoon brings a conference call with county officials across the Panhandle, discussing what they need and where they need it. The conversations don't always go well. One afternoon a Franklin County commissioner repeatedly berated him for not sending enough booms to her county, leaving Sole sputtering, "Let me finish!"

When the Florida Association of Counties met in Tampa recently, Sole showed up to give an update on how it's going along the gulf coast. Afterward, a commissioner from the Atlantic coast buttonholed him to express concerns about oil getting into the gulf's loop current, sweeping it around to contaminate his side of the state, too.

The commissioner suggested Sole didn't know what valuable environmental resources were on the Atlantic side. Not true, Sole replied.

"I'm a Fort Pierce boy," Sole said. "I grew up diving those reefs."

• • •

Sole is the son of a Marine officer who made sure the family spent every summer visiting family in Florida no matter where the Marines posted the family. He still enjoys scuba diving and snorkeling in Florida's waters with his wife, Jeannie, and daughter, Samantha.

Growing up around the water led him to earn a bachelor's degree in marine biology at the Florida Institute of Technology, where he studied the population and migration of manatees.

Sole was a captain in the Marine Corps during the Persian Gulf War, when his duties included overseeing the storage and disposal of hazardous waste. He began his career with the state as a biological scientist for the old Florida Department of Natural Resources, a predecessor to DEP.

Between 1991 and 2005 he worked his way up to deputy secretary. He headed up the sections in charge of beaches and shores, and then took charge of waste management. He also spent a year working as chief of staff for Gov. Jeb Bush's DEP chief, Colleen Castille.

When Gov. Charlie Crist tapped Sole to head DEP in December 2006, his long career in the agency prompted Eric Draper of Audubon of Florida to call Sole "an honest broker" who "can be trusted to uphold our environmental laws."

But Jerry Phillips of Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility said he was "extremely disappointed" at Sole's promotion because he foresaw no change in what was a pro-business agency as run under Bush.

• • •

As the oil spill crisis has deepened, Crist has repeatedly praised Sole's performance, even when Crist himself was being blasted by critics over the state's response.

"I can't say enough good things about him," Crist said last week. "He's been an absolutely grade-A public servant."

When Crist toured the Panhandle's hardest-hit beaches, Sole was by his side. When Crist took a trip out on the state wildlife commission's 50-foot patrol boat, the Orion, Sole rode along, too. The pair spent Father's Day riding a skimmer boat on St. Joe Bay as its crew practiced its work.

With Crist's time as governor winding down, Sole knows he also should be looking for a job. He just hasn't had time.

"Obviously I really love working at DEP, which I've done for almost 20 years now, but it's probably time for me to move on and let others take the helm," he said last week. "It's just hard for me to focus on that right now, although I know I need to focus on it."

One of the most vocal critics of the state and federal response has been Escambia County Commission Chairman Grover Robinson IV. Robinson said he saw plenty of problems with coordination in May but believes the state and local governments figured out how to work together better in June.

He praised Sole for working hard day in and day out to resolve everyone's problems. "We have not always agreed on the issues, but that doesn't mean I haven't been glad to have him as secretary of the DEP," Robinson said.

Oil has hit the beaches in Escambia County — primarily Pensacola Beach and Perdido Key — harder than any others in the state. Last week the spill seemed to be moving east, away from Pensacola, but it could return.

So during a meeting with Crist and Sole, Robinson leaned over to Sole and asked: "Are the skimmers going to be here when the oil comes back? I'm counting on you."

DEP chief Mike Sole is Florida's point man on the oil spill 07/18/10 [Last modified: Sunday, July 18, 2010 11:13pm]
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