Add Florida's Dune Lakes To Oil Spill Casualties

fromWFSU

The BP oil spill has caused plenty of environmental damage in the Gulf of Mexico. But for all of the at-risk marshes, estuaries, beaches and bayous, one stretch of the Florida panhandle is especially sensitive.

AUDIE CORNISH, Host:

The BP oil spill has caused plenty of environmental damage in the Gulf of Mexico. But for all of the at-risk marshes, estuaries, beaches and bayous, one stretch of the Florida panhandle is especially sensitive.

Florida Public Radio's Trimmel Gomes reports.

TRIMMEL GOMES: They're called coastal dune lakes are only found in a few places - Madagascar, New Zealand, Australia, and here in Walton County, Florida.

(SOUNDBITE OF WATER RUSHING)

GOMES: It's rare for fresh and saltwater species to share the same water, but these unusual lakes at the edge of the Gulf of Mexico face possible oil contamination.

AMY STEVENS: We just come down here and we love it, and the kids would love because we have this little area right here. But now it's locked off and you can't really use it that much.

GOMES: Amy Stevens(ph) says her family has owned their house on this lake since the 1940s. As a kid, she used to canoe from the lake straight into the Gulf.

STEVENS: Launch it off and circle around in this area where it looks like a white bridge, that used to not be there. And so it would just circle around and you could just drive a canoe right up and put it on the beach and it'd be right there.

GOMES: That bridge is actually a berm, built from the same sugary white sand to keep oily Gulf water out of the critically imperiled lakes. Officials in Florida watched what happened in Louisiana when the federal government and BP were slow to protect sensitive areas. So, County Commissioner Kenneth Pridgen says they decided to go it alone.

KENNETH PRIDGEN: I think the citizens of the county, the people become aware that we got to protect this. This oil, you know, we don't know if it's going to hit us or not but we got to be proactive in getting this here developed to keep that out from happening. Because, you know, it's better to be proactive instead of idle and then wish you had done something later trying to solve the problem.

GOMES: Pridgen watches tons of sand get dropped out of giant yellow dump trucks as workers try to cut off the natural ebb and flow of fresh and saltwater out of the lakes, which are home to a variety of marine life. BP is paying Louisiana $360 million for a berm project to protect wetlands in barrier islands. But Walton County has received no financial guarantees and has dipped into its reserves to fund this sand-dredging effort.

PRIDGEN: We've filed with BP to try to get reimbursement for what we've spent because this has contributed to the oil spill.

GOMES: BP has said it will only pay for legitimate claims and it's not clear whether this project counts. As patches of oil continue to move into Florida, coastal communities have begun to roll out similar beach berm protection plans with hopes BP will reimburse them later.

For NPR News, I'm Trimmel Gomes.

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