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How to protect Panama City from oil? How about the Great Wall of Bay County?

If the oil washing ashore on Pensacola's beaches threatens tourist-dependent Panama City, local officials say they're ready with a solution similar to the one the Chinese used to fend off invaders: a Great Wall.

This week Bay County obtained a state permit to build a sand wall that's 3 feet high and 18 1/2 miles long to protect Panama City's beach.

The Great Wall of Bay County is another sign of how local officials across the Panhandle, unhappy with the response by BP and the federal and state governments, have been taking matters into their own hands to deal with the Deepwater Horizon disaster.

From the location of booms to guidance on how to save their unique landscape from being destroyed, local officials have repeatedly challenged the status quo, convinced they know their community better than someone in Tallahassee or Washington, D.C.

When state Department of Environmental Protection Secretary Mike Sole held a conference call with local officials last Friday — on the day the first tar balls washed ashore near Pensacola — a Franklin County commissioner berated him for not sending enough booms her way — to the point that Sole was left sputtering, "Let me finish!"

"Clearly there have been some issues and concerns," said Cragin Mosteller of the Florida Association of Counties.

Last week, Hillsborough County commissioners directed their staff to begin identifying sources of money for protecting the region's shorelines — even shorelines in other counties.

Commissioner Jim Norman, who urged those steps, suggested Hillsborough money should be put into a regional pool to be used to protect Pinellas because anything that has a negative effect on Pinellas would surely harm tourism in Hillsborough as well.

"You can never rely on what's going to happen with the federal government and their responses," Norman said.

But Pinellas, Pasco and Hernando county officials say they have no plans to strike out on their own at this point the way some Panhandle counties have.

The first was Escambia County. Officials there began pushing in May for a different boom-deployment plan than the one the Coast Guard and BP had in mind, and persisted until it was approved.

Last week, Walton County began construction on a series of sand dams to protect rare coastal dune lakes. County officials said they took that step because no one from the state or federal governments or BP could tell them how the lakes would be protected from the oil.

Bay County's wall is the result of "everyone putting their heads together to see if something could be built quickly before any oil comes up on the beach," explained Lisa Armbruster, beach management consultant for the county's tourist development council. "Our intent is to minimize the amount of the beach that could be overtopped by oil."

The emergency permit issued by the state DEP on Tuesday says that as soon as Bay County gets word that the oil is 72 hours away from the beach, county officials can launch construction of the wall. They can then drive construction equipment onto the beach and push sand up into 3-foot-high piles.

If the oil gets onto the wall, Armbruster said, they would then just haul it off, leaving behind a clean beach. County officials say they have no estimate on cost or who would pay for it. County officials also maintain they don't need federal approval because the berms will be built on shore.

Louisiana has received authorization from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to build berms that would stand six feet above the gulf's mean high-water mark, the Wall Street Journal reports. The Environmental Protection Agency has said the berms probably won't keep most of the spilled oil away from the coast and could cause unintended ecological problems.

Times staff writers Bill Varian, David DeCamp, Jodie Tillman and Barbara Behrendt contributed to this report.

How to protect Panama City from oil? How about the Great Wall of Bay County? 06/09/10 [Last modified: Wednesday, June 9, 2010 11:45pm]

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