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BP claims administrator-to-be Feinberg returns to Panhandle

Friday, August 6th, 2010 by Dara Kam

Ken Feinberg, hired by President Barack Obama and BP to take over the troubled claims process, will return to the Florida Panhandle on Tuesday.

Feinberg will meet with business owners and others in Panama City Beach and Pensacola.

Feinberg’s likely to get an earful from local business owners dismayed to discover this weekend that BP has stopped making payments for lost sales in May because oil had not yet landed on Panhandle beaches.

And he’ll probably hear even more grousing about the delays in payments like the three months it took for one Pensacola Beach business owner to get about half what he estimates he lost in sales during May, June and July.

BP initiated an “Immediate Action Claims Team” over the weekend to expedite payments to businesses.

But adjusters or even operators at the “Immediate Actions Claims Team” hotline were unaware of the program when called earlier this week.

Feinberg was tapped in mid-June to take over the claims process for individuals and businesses and dole out the $20 billion BP will put into an escrow fund for Gulf state claims.

BP has yet to make the first payment into the fund, which it will build up over three-and-a-half years, but Feinberg said he’s confident the money will be there when he takes over sometime later this month.

Feinberg will first make six-month emergency payments to cash-strapped businesses and individuals impacted by the April 20 Deepwater Horizon oil rig blast and ensuing massive oil leak into the Gulf of Mexico.

But he’s struggling to establish a protocol – which he’s revised more than nine times so far – to define who should get paid and how much.

BP VP of operations Darryl Willis, in charge of the claims system until Feinberg takes the helm, said his company has received claims from 48 states.

The Panhandle events are open to the public but RSVP’s are required. Those interested in attending can contact the Bay County Chamber of Commerce 850-785-5206 or the Pensacola Bay Chamber of Commerce 850-438-4081 by 4 p.m. Monday to reserve a seat.

Gelber strikes back at Aronberg in attorney general race TV ad

Friday, August 6th, 2010 by Dara Kam

State Sen. Dan Gelber gets defensive in his first television ad in the race against fellow senator Dave Aronberg in the Democratic attorney general primary.

With absentee voting already underway, Gelber, a Miami Beach lawyer and former federal prosecutor, highlights his years in the courtroom and accuses Aronberg of “political games” and “dishonest attacks” in a series of mailers in which Aronberg accuses Gelber of a potential conflict of interest. Aronberg’s made a big issue out of Gelber’s former law firm going to work for BP to defend the oil giant in any Florida lawsuits.

Take a $250 shopping spree courtesy of BP

Monday, August 2nd, 2010 by Dara Kam

Tourists who book three nights or more in a Walton County beach hotel between now and Sept. 30 will get a $250 voucher for Southwest Airlines or $250 gift card for the Silver Sands outlet mall in Sandestin, all on BP’s dime.

The promotion will be paid out of the $7 million BP gave Panhandle tourism boards to help lure visitors back to the region where tourism has taken a nosedive in the aftermath of the massive Deepwater Horizon oil leak.

Tar blotches and oil stains impacted all but 1.5 miles of the 26-mile stretch of sugar white beaches in Walton Count and resulted in a 7 percent drop in bed tax collections in June and a 3 percent reduction in May, according to Dawn Moliterno, head of the region’s tourism development council, Beaches of South Walton.

The $7 million will be divided between the seven Florida tourism councils most directly impacted by the oil spill. Escambia and Santa Rosa counties will receive $700,000; the seven councils will split 14 percent of the $7 million and the rest will be distributed based on the amount of bed tax each of the councils collects. The tourism officials have to spend the money by Sept. 30, when all promotional programs must end, Moliterno said.

Moliterno’s council paid the most of the bunch last year – nearly $1.7 million and so will get a bigger slice of the BP marketing money.

The TDCs are excited about the new fund because they have control over how the money will be spent, unlike the $25 million for marketing BP gave the state earlier in the summer.

Moliterno thinks the vouchers will be great for the local economy because visitors will spread the cash around to businesses other than hotels.

“We know if we can get people here we know we can get them to support the community,” Moliterno said.

She gave BP credit for “putting the money into motion.”

Aronberg calls Gelber request for attorney general debates ‘political stunt’ but says yes…if

Tuesday, July 27th, 2010 by Dara Kam

State Sen. Dave Aronberg agreed to his colleague Sen. Dan Gelber’s request for debates before the primary election…sort of.

Aronberg and Gelber are in a heated Democratic primary for attorney general, and Aronberg’s taken off the gloves and attacked his opponent for Gelber’s former law firm’s representation of BP.

Gelber says he resigned from Akerman Senterfitt, the state’s largest law firm that recently was retained by BP, days before Aronberg demanded it.

Gelber then sent Aronberg a letter asking for 11 debates before the Aug. 24 primary.

Aronberg responded today calling a request for that many debates – nearly three a week – a “political stunt” and dragging BP into the debate arena.

“The next Attorney General will probably spend the better part of this decade involved in litigation of the state versus BP, Halliburton and other parties who might share liability for this disaster. Therefore, as we work together to agree on our debate schedule, I want to insist that at least one of the debates be held there so the citizens of that region can hear our plans for fighting for them as their Attorney General,” Aronberg wrote in a letter to Gelber.

Aronberg also agreed to a debate outside of South Florida, home to both Democrats, in Tampa Bay or Orlando.

Sink seeks clarification from Feinberg on BP claimants’ promise not to sue

Wednesday, July 21st, 2010 by Dara Kam

Chief Financial Officer Alex Sink wants Ken Feinberg, appointed by President Barack Obama to administer the BP oil spill claims process, to clarify whether individuals and businesses seeking payment from the oil giant must promise not to sue BP in the future.

Sink’s letter comes on the heels of a scathing analysis of Feinberg’s claims process – revamped nine times since he started the take-over late last month – by a Florida legal dream team tapped by Gov. Charlie Crist and Attorney General Bill McCollum.

One of the legal eagles’ chief worries is Feinberg’s requirement that anyone seeking a lump-sum settlement from BP waive their right to sue – long before the full impact from the devastating oil leak are known.

“With millions of gallons of oil discharged in the Gulf of Mexico, the people who live and work along the Gulf Coast cannot know with any certainty today what the full extent of their damages may be in the future. In order to ensure that the claims process is fair, the payment of any Floridian’s claim, including a final claim, should not be conditioned on the waiver of the claimant’s rights under state or federal law,” Sink, a Democrat running for governor, wrote to Feinberg today.

Former attorneys general Jim Smith and Bob Butterworth sent a letter to Crist and McCollum this week outlining their concerns with Feinberg’s process, chief among them his aim to give BP “total peace” regarding payouts.

“While the current BP claims process has been fraught with delays and has failed to adequately compensate the many victims of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, we are concerned that the process that is about to replace it has the potential to harm the citizens of the Gulf Region as profoundly and deeply as the spill itself,” Smith and Butterworth wrote.
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Dems want special session to include unemployment benefits

Tuesday, July 20th, 2010 by Dara Kam

Two Palm Beach County lawmakers are pushing a measure to implement an expansion of unemployment compensation benefits Congress is expected to pass as early as today. The bill could bring about $270 million in unemployment benefits for about 200,000 long-term unemployed Floridians whose extended benefits dried up on June 5.

But there’s little chance GOP leaders will expand the special session on oil drilling that kicked off at noon and is already coming to a close in the House.

Gov. Charlie Crist called lawmakers into town to pass a proposed constitutional amendment that would allow voters to decide if offshore oil drilling in Florida should be banned.

The Senate wants to pass the measure but the House is expected to convene briefly and adjourn without even voting on it.

Congress appears to have settled its own impasse over unemployment benefits and is expected today to approve another expansion for the long-term unemployed.

But Floridians won’t be able to get the additional funds unless state lawmakers sign off.

Rep. Kevin Rader, D-Boynton Beach, filed a bill that would extend the state’s June 5 expiration date for the long-term unemployed benefits and wrote a letter yesterday asking Crist to expand the session.

More than 35,000 Floridians a week are losing out on the extended benefits, Rader said.

“These are families who need this money because of the economic crisis in our state,” said Rader, who failed to convince lawmakers to pass a similar measure during the regular session to avoid having to come back during a special session to extend the deadline for the benefits.

Jobless workers spend $1.70 for each $1 in unemployment fund they receive, according to some estimates.

“It’s outrageous we would not act so that Floridians get the funds that they are entitled to,” said Sen. Dan Gelber, D-Miami Beach, one of the bill’s co-sponsors. Gelber’s Democratic attorney general opponent, Sen. Dave Aronberg of Greenacres, is also backing the measure. “It’s money for people who need it the most and who will spend it immediately.”

Rader acknowledged it is highly unlikely the session will be expanded but that “I am always hopeful that common sense and reason will prevail.”

State senate committee to investigate oil blow-out economic fall-out

Friday, July 2nd, 2010 by Dara Kam

A state select committee on the economy will look into the financial fall-out from the Deepwater Horizon on the Panhandle.

The Senate Select Committee on the Economy will hold its first meeting in Pensacola on July 12.

The committee, headed by Sen. Don Gaetz, wants to hear from local property owners and business owners, among others, to see what if anything state lawmakers can do to help ease the financial strain on the tourism-dependent region.

Gov. Charlie Crist has been pushing lawmakers to hold a special session on oil to put a constitutional amendment on the November ballot letting voters decide whether to ban drilling off Florida’s coast. Senate President Jeff Atwater, R-North Palm Beach, said last week he would support a special session on oil sooner rather than later, but GOP House leaders indicated they would rather postpone a special session until after the November general election.

Among the items Gaetz siad his committee will consider: possible tax relief for property owners whose businesses have been struck by revenue shortfalls, the drawn-out claims process, and possible relaxation of environmental regulations to speed up economic recovery.

“This catastrophe is metastasizing daily,” Gaetz, R-Niceville, said in a press release. “Floridians are losing their jobs, business income is slumping and local governments are rapidly burning through their scant reserves. Every barrel of oil that pumps into the Gulf of Mexico poisons the economy of Florida.”

The committee will also review “barriers to an aggressive response” by government officials and BP regarding the economic impact of the oil disaster, the press release said.

Biden to Florida Panhandle: ‘We’re not going anywhere.’

Tuesday, June 29th, 2010 by Dara Kam

bidencristallenWith Gov. Charlie Crist by his side, Vice President Joe Biden vowed that the Sunshine State has the president’s full support as residents and business owners cope with the continuing impacts of oil on beaches and inland waters from the Deepwater Horizon disaster.

“This region has been hit hard by acts of God and now by an act of man. We’re going to be feeling the effects, and you’re going to be feeling the effects, for some time to come. But we also intend to stick with this region until it has been made whole,” Biden said early this evening, referring to the devastation of 2004 Hurricane Ivan on the Panhandle. “We’re not going anywhere. We’re staying here until the job is done.”

Flanked by Deepwater Horizon incident commander U.S. Coast Guard Adm. Thad Allen, the state’s newly-appointed disaster response leader Capt. Steve Poulin and Crist, Biden spoke of the importance the Gulf of Mexico plays in the “cultural ecosystem” of the coastal communities where fishing has come to an abrupt end.

“There’s in a sense a way of life at stake here, not just an economic concern,” Biden told reporters reading from a prepared statement to a group of reporters in front of the U.S. Coast Guard cutter “Oak” at the Naval Air Station in Pensacola.

“We’re not going to forget the people of the Gulf until their economy is back up and running, until this is cleaned up, until the oil is stopped from gushing from the bottom of the ocean floor. We’re not going to end this until everyone is made whole,” he said.
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I found skimmers, McCollum tells Obama official. Now get ‘em here.

Friday, June 25th, 2010 by Dara Kam

Attorney General Bill McCollum stepped up his demands for more skimming vessels to be sent to Florida to combat black waves of oil as thick as two inches deep washing up on Panhandle beaches.

McCollum, a Republican running for governor, sent U.S. Department of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano a letter today again seeking more skimming boats for the Sunshine State.

McCollum’s staff located at least four skimming vessels operated by a Jacksonville-based company that helped in the Exxon-Valdez oil disaster and included information about Crowley Maritime in his letter to Napolitano.

There are 28 skimming vessels in the Gulf of Mexico off Florida’s shores but thousands more are available from other countries offering services that President Barack Obama’s administration has thus far refused to accept.

“I don’t get it. There’s some real disconnect. It’s either incompetence or somebody’s decided we don’t need them,” McCollum said in an interview. “Why should we leave a single American flag vessel available? Why aren’t we calling them? I don’t know for the life of me.”

Crist to meet with Philippe Cousteau, tour Pensacola

Tuesday, June 22nd, 2010 by Dara Kam

Gov. Charlie Crist is slated to meet with Philippe Cousteau, grandson of the oceanographer icon Jacques Cousteau, tomorrow before touring Pensacola by air and on the ground.

oily_fingersCousteau is carrying on the work of his legendary family as head of the non-profit EarthEcho International, an organization dedicated to protecting the planet’s waters.

Crist is also scheduled to fly over the Pensacola area with the state’s new incident commander, U.S. Coast Guard Commander Joe Boudrow, Department of Environmental Protection Secretary Mike Sole and Florida National Guard Major General Douglas Burnett. After the aerial tour, they’ll hit the beach on foot.

Crist to BP: I want your claims data. Now.

Tuesday, June 22nd, 2010 by Dara Kam

Gov. Charlie Crist wants BP officials to hand over every claims file processed or submitted to the oil giant for reparations from economic losses caused by the Deepwater Horizon oil disaster.

Crist today sent BP Chief Operating Officer Doug Suttles, who visited Pensacola earlier today, a letter demanding the that BP cooperate with his legal and budget staff and the Department of Revenue “to provide us the data we need to evaluate the claims process and measure the economic impact of the losses to our state as a whole.”

Crist wants “a complete electronic file of every business, individual and government claim throughout Florida, to be updated weekly, with indications whether the claim has been approved, denied, or is still pending a decision.”

One economist estimates the oil disaster could cost Florida $11 billion in lost revenues and nearly 200,000 jobs.

Sink wants boots on the ground in Florida for $25,000-plus BP claims

Wednesday, June 16th, 2010 by Dara Kam

Chief Financial Officer Alex Sink, who’s going to qualify for the governor’s race today, said she was “pretty encouraged” by President Barack Obama’s visit to the Panhandle after meeting with him in Pensacola yesterday.

Sink has been out front demanding that the federal government take over the BP claims process, a tangled web that is taking some business owners weeks to navigate with little success. Obama promised yesterday that a third party would manage an “evergreen account” set up by BP to handle claims.

Sink, a former banker, yesterday asked Obama to set up a large claims office for claims greater than $25,000 in Florida. Those claims now have to go through Louisiana, creating even more hassle for hoteliers, restaurant owners, charter boat captains and marina owners, some of whose losses have already piled up into the hundreds of thousands of dollars range.

Claims in Florida are going to be larger because of the nature of the losses here, Sink said she told Obama, and small business owners shouldn’t “have to deal with all this bureaucracy.”

“They’ve got to have a physical presence here. No more dialing the 1-800 number over in Louisiana. That’s ridiculous,” Sink said.

McCollum wants $2.5 billion from BP just in case

Thursday, June 10th, 2010 by Dara Kam

Attorney General Bill McCollum is asking BP to put $2.5 billion into an interest-earning escrow account to cover the state’s losses from the Deepwater Horizon disaster.

McCollum’s requests is the latest in Florida candidates’ string of demands for cash from the oil giant.

A month ago, state Sen. Dave Aronberg, a Greenacres Democrat running to replace McCollum, asked BP to put at least $1 billion into escrow to cover possible damages.

McCollum and the other Florida Cabinet members were less than pleased with some of British Petroleum Vice President Robert Fryar’s Tuesday appearance before the panel.

Fryar told McCollum he did not know if BP has earmarks any funds to pay claims to Florida government, citizens or businesses resulting from the April 20 disaster.

University of Central Florida economist Sean Snaith recently estimated the impact of the oil disaster on the state’s economy could range from $2.2 billion to nearly $11 billion.

McCollum’s wants BP to put $2.5 billion into a savings account and acknowledge that may not be enough.

Feds sign off on Florida fishery failure

Friday, June 4th, 2010 by Dara Kam

Federal officials took just one day to approve Gov. Charlie Crist’s request for a determination of a Florida fishery failure because of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill.

Crist asked the U.S. Department of Commerce to grant the determination yesterday, when he also flew over the Panhandle and eyeballed at one oil sheen less than four miles off the shoreline.

Charter boat captains and commercial fishermen say their livelihoods have plummeted in the aftermath of the oil spill. State officials have kept state fishing waters – up to nine miles from the coast in some areas – remain open but federal officials have closed off an ever-growing portion of their waters to commercial and recreational fishing.

The Panhandle’s snapper three-week snapper season, one of the most lucrative times of the year for the tourist region, kicked off on Tuesday.

The fishery failure determination means that fishermen and other impacted businesses will be eligible for federal small business loans to help cover their economic damages.

Crist will be in New Orleans with President Barack Obama today for more on the oil leak and recovery efforts.

Obama halts all deep-water oil drilling, new estimates show four times more oil than thought gushing into Gulf

Thursday, May 27th, 2010 by Dara Kam

gulf_oil_spill_jpeg_447171kPresident Barack Obama halted all deep-water oil drilling operations in the Gulf for the next six months or until a presidential commission co-chaired by former Florida U.S. Sen. Bob Graham completes its work.

Obama ordered the 33 deep-water rigs to stop drilling this afternoon as federal officials estimate that between 12,000 and 15,000 barrels of oil per day – up to four times more than previously thought – is gushing from the Deepwater Horizon well into the Gulf of Mexico. The disaster has now surpassed the Exxon Valdez spill more than 20 years ago.

Obama refuted criticism that his administration has not responded quickly enough to the disaster but acknowledged more could have been done in at least two key areas, including the oil flow estimates.

“This is what I wake up to in the morning and this is what I go to bed at night thinking about. The spill,” Obama told reporters at a press conference this afternoon in Washington. “Those who think that we were either slow on our response or lacked urgency don’t know the facts. This has been our highest priority since this crisis occurred.”

But government officials should not have trusted BP’s estimates of how much oil was spewing from the well more than 5,000 feet below the sea level, Obama said.

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Sen. Gaetz trashes Crist at Cabinet meeting on oil leak response

Tuesday, May 25th, 2010 by Dara Kam

GOP Senate leader Don Gaetz blasted Gov. Charlie Crist at this morning’s Cabinet meeting for failing to adequately respond to a possible economic crisis in the Panhandle caused by the thousands of barrels of oil gushing into the Gulf of Mexico each day.

“It’s in days like this that I miss Jeb Bush,” Gaetz, R-Destin, told reporters after criticizing the governor during an impromptu Cabinet appearance.

Gaetz demanded that Crist do something with the $25 million British Petroleum gave the state to advertise that the state’s beaches are clean and the fishing season is in full swing.

“I’ve been getting confusing answers out of the governor’s office for days. There’s been no response to President Atwater’s letters asking for specificity. Where’s this money? How’s it being deployed?
We’ve not seen a timely response. We’ve not seen an effective response. And jobs are being lost as a consequence,” a frustrated Gaetz said.
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Crist tells President Obama Floridians are getting fed up with oil leak

Monday, May 24th, 2010 by Dara Kam

Gov. Charlie Crist told President Barack Obama Floridians are more than a little impatient about the massive oil leak now in the 35th day pumping thousands of barrels of oil a day into the Gulf of Mexico.

Crist said the president joined him and the four other Gulf Coast state governors this morning on a conference call concerning the BP disaster.

President Barack Obama on the phone with the five Gulf Coast state governors, including Gov. Charlie Crist, today

President Barack Obama on the phone with the five Gulf Coast state governors, including Gov. Charlie Crist, today

“We’re all very concerned. I mentioned to the president, I said ‘I appreciate the sense of urgency. And In addition to that, though, on behalf of my fellow Floridians, there’s a bit of agitation. More than a bit.’ Florida’s beautiful. And we’ve got to protect her,” Crist told reporters at a Florida National Guard welcome-home this afternoon.

Crist said president’s participation on the near-daily White House telephone briefings assured him that Obama is “on it” and that “we’re going to see a stronger response going forward.”

Crist, now running as an independent for U.S. Senate, applauded Obama’s commitment to “doing everything possible” to keep Florida beaches clean but is clearly frustrated by the continuous plume of oil now headed toward the Florida Keys.

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Crist asks BP for $35 million for ad campaign to combat lies about Fla beaches

Wednesday, May 12th, 2010 by Dara Kam

Gov. Charlie Crist wants BP to give the state nearly $35 million for an ad campaign to lure tourists scared off by the massive oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico back to the Sunshine State.

Crist asked BP to fork over $34.75 million – $10 million more than BP pledged to the state to offset initial clean-up and preparation costs – for a “marketing campaign to counter the negative, widespread and false information potential visitors to Florida are receiving about the oil spill’s impact on Florida’s beaches and waters,” the governor’s office said in a press release.

This morning, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service incorrectly reported that tar balls had washed up on the beach in Destin. Not true, local officials said.

As Chief Financial Officer Alex Sink’s campaign staff pointed out, Sink (the Democratic candidate for governor) beat Crist to the punch this weekend by formally asking BP to pay for the ads. Sink also asked Crist earlier this week to get the federal SBA disaster loans to help out small businesses.

It’s been an oily week for the newly-independent governor and U.S. Senate so far, and it’s only Wednesday.

Crist, who is shortly going to officially abandon the Republican party by changing his voter registration, visited the Panhandle this weekend and took a leisurely ride with reporters on a charter fishing boat to spread the word to visitors that Florida’s beaches are beautiful, fish are biting and the water’s clean.

Also today, Crist asked federal officials for an economic injury disaster declaration for the 19 counties abutting the Gulf Coast from the Panhandle south to Sarasota so local businesses can get emergency loans to tide them over until BP fills their damage claims.
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Tar balls on Destin beach? NO say local officials!

Wednesday, May 12th, 2010 by Dara Kam

“There are no tar balls here.”

That’s the first thing Okaloosa County director of public safety Dino Villani said this morning when we called after hearing news reports that the gooey blobs had finally made it to Florida’s Panhandle.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service erroneously reported this morning that tar balls had washed up on Destin’s famous powder-white beaches, Villani said, setting off a phone frenzy in his office.

The massive oil spill is still more than 72 hours from Florida, state officials reported this morning, as BP tries to cap the 210,000-gallons gushing from the wrecked Deepwater Horizon rig in the Gulf of Mexico.

The absence of tar balls on Panhandle beaches is something everyone from Gov. Charlie Crist down to Destin charter boat fishing captains have been advertising to try to convince tourists to “Come on down” to the Sunshine State, unfold their wallets and and boost the economy as the peak of the Panhandle tourist season kicks off.

Oil disaster a siege, not a marathon, DEP Secy. Sole tells lawmakers

Monday, May 10th, 2010 by Dara Kam

gulf_oil_spill_jpeg_426705eThe massive oil leak and continuing outpouring of oil into the Gulf of Mexico is a siege, not a marathon, Florida Department of Environmental Protection Secretary Mike Sole told lawmakers on a conference call this afternoon.

“A lot of times in the emergency management realm we say this is not a sprint, it’s a marathon,” Sole, the state’s lead official in charge of the Deepwater Horizon disaster response, said. “Well, sadly this is not a marathon because I don’t know how far we’re going to run. This is a siege.”

Sole said the state will “continue to throw everything we have at it until it’s solved whether that’s solved in two days because they suddenly get the blow-out prevention device to work or whether they need to keep trying everything and the only solution, the only thing that works is the relief well.”

BP’s attempt to funnel the 210,000 gallons a day spewing out of the wrecked rig 5,000 feet below the ocean’s surface failed this weekend. The oil giant is building a relief well to stop the flow of oil into the Gulf of Mexico. But that project will take two to three months to complete, Sole said.

And BP is considering other experimental options to try to reduce the amount of oil coursing into the Gulf.

Rep. Greg Evers, R-Baker, asked Sole if he could ballpark the chances of success for capping the leak before the relief well is complete.

“That’s an excellent question. The answer is no I don’t,” Sole said, followed by a lengthy silence.

“Whether or not they try other options …whether they’re well-formulated and good ideas that they want to pursue, that’s what they’re looking at,” said Sole, a biologist. “I don’t want to say they’re doing to do x. I know they’re looking at those options but they haven’t made a decision yet on what would be the right thing to do.”

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