Gulf oil spill stirs up activism


SARASOTA COUNTY – Although this region avoided its devastating effects, the BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill prompted the formation of new environmental groups here and generated more public interest in water quality and wildlife protection across Florida.

Overall the public’s new involvement is a good thing, local scientists and government officials say, despite a few false alarms when the spill was still gushing.

“It is important that people stay abreast of what’s going on,” said Kumar Mahadevan, president and CEO of Mote Marine, adding that it becomes harder for BP or the federal government to prematurely declare everything is fine if people stay informed.

The spill affected public activism both locally and statewide. Take, for instance, the international movement, Hands Across the Sand. The group organizes worldwide gatherings of people to hold hands on beaches in support of alternative energy.

In February, before the spill, about 10,000 Floridians hit the beach for one of the events. In June, with the BP gusher was still flowing, participation escalated to nearly 40,000, said Tony Sasso of Cocoa Beach, one of the state Hands Across the Sand coordinators.

Locally, advocacy groups such as the Sierra Club, have seen more participation and a few new members, said Gerry Swormstedt, Manatee/Sarasota Group chairperson for Sierra Club.

“It did motivate people to be concerned,” Swormstedt said.

At least two new environmental groups formed in response to the spill.

One, called Protect Our Waters, aims to stop the use of chemical dispersants on future spills by working through state and federal legislators.

Organized by Susan McMillan of Wimauma, the group has about 10 dedicated members, with about a dozen others on hand to show support at important meetings with legislators.

Another organization’s mission is to monitor water quality by sending samples to labs for testing. The group, Testing Our Waters, has sent dozens of samples to a lab in Mobile at its own expense.

Distrustful of the federal government’s response and monitoring, the group, started by Sayer Ji of Bonita Springs, wants to keep a watchful eye out for BP oil and dispersants.

It is a tough and expensive challenge in a world awash in crude to pin a sample that proves to be oil as BP’s.

“The fact is we’re living in a world that is full of petroleum products,” said Laird Wreford, coastal resources manager for Sarasota County.

The public’s desire to get involved and volunteer during the height of the crisis, also helped local officials form better community connections that could prove beneficial in the future.

“It doesn’t have to be something as catastrophic. It could be an oil tanker that crashes a mile off shore,” Wreford said. “Now we feel like we are far more prepared.”

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Stuart H. Smith is an attorney based in New Orleans fighting major oil companies and other polluters.
Cooper Law Firm

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