Florida Keys & the Gulf Oil Disaster: Dan Kimball, Everglades and Dry Tortugas National Parks Superintendent, tells his story

During the Deepwater Horizon spill, Dan Kimball was the U.S. Department of the Interior’s chief representative for the Florida Keys and, like Coast Guard Capt. Pat DeQuattro, served as an incident commander. Kimball is charged with caring for large swaths of some of Florida’s most important natural resources: Everglades and Dry Tortugas National Parks.

One of Kimball’s major priorities during the disaster was overseeing surveillance to help ready the response effort if the oil reached the parks. His team monitored the Gulf’s shifting conditions, modeling how the oil might spread. He and others oversaw several boats that dragged plankton nets in search of oil, while five aircraft scoured the Gulf’s surface from above. After coming across 233 oil-related samples, he sent them to the Coast Guard Marine Safety Lab for comparison with Deepwater Horizon oil (fortunately, none were a match). And he helped with the public communication effort, facilitating sign-up for the “coast watch” programs and recruiting additional lookouts.

Kimball was concerned most for Florida Bay, which lies between the southern tip of the peninsula and the Keys, and the Ten Thousand Islands, strung along the state’s southwest coast. With immense stands of mangroves and many sinuous channels, these regions would have been wildly difficult to protect, let alone clean up. Oil booms may very well have proved an ineffective defense, since the Deepwater Horizon oil likely would have arrived as “tar balls,” which are semi-solid globules of weathered oil that can be difficult for booms to capture.

Over all, Kimball feels South Florida and the Keys were well prepared for a spill; strong contingency plans were in place. But he notes that Deepwater Horizon disaster clearly demonstrates the need to consider even more scenarios, including long-term spills. Moving forward, that means refining contingency plans and performing more “table top exercises” (think “fire drills” for oil spills). As he put it: “[T]he more we simulate what might occur, working closely with our partners, the better we’ll be able to effectively respond to a real-life event.” A potential crisis “really brings a lot of people together,” and the partnerships built this summer will help tackle the many environmental challenges in South Florida and the Keys, like the threat of climate change, he says.

But we’re not out of Deepwater yet. Kimball, who also took part in the Exxon Valdez spill response, points out that some of its environmental repercussions weren’t felt until years later. No one’s sure how the oil—or the dispersants—will impact Florida’s coastal ecosystem. There’s lots of monitoring still to be done—and I hope you’ll keep checking back here, too, as I introduce other Florida Keys leaders and their thoughts on the spill response. For more of their reflections, please check out NRDC’s report, “The Florida Keys Response to the Gulf Oil Disaster.”