As Oil Anger Grows, Floridians Take Action

Tallahassee, FL – Hundreds of protesters gathered at the Capitol before the July 20 special session, calling for a constitutional amendment banning oil drilling. Now, after the Legislature refused to consider it, more Floridians are concluding they must respond to the oil spill themselves, in their own communities. Margie Menzel reports.

"Let the people vote! Let the people vote!"

It was Tuesday morning, just before the House of Representatives was called to order by Speaker Larry Cretul. The protesters knew what was likely to happen.
"It's no secret what the speaker of the House of Representatives is planning to do," shouted David Rauschkalb, organizer of Hands Across the Sand. "Snuff out the only possibility to let the people decide - an act so short-sighted and arrogant...an act that is an insult to Floridians."

The few hundred demonstrators were a drop in the bucket compared to the tens of thousands at the Capitol for, say, the special session on abortion in 1989 - coincidentally, the same year of the Exxon Valdez oil spill in Prince William Sound, off the coast of Alaska. But the protesters did much of their organizing online, and those at the Capitol represented a fraction of those tracking the oil spill in the mainstream and social media. Enter Riki Ott, a marine toxicologist from Alaska. She's been touring the Gulf, warning its residents that oil is far more poisonous than they know.

"We're still in sort of the mentality that 'the world is flat' in terms of public policy, where the scientific community has already moved on to 'the world is round,'" said Ott. "And unfortunately, who's getting caught in the gap in between are the people who are naive enough to believe the public officials that oil's not that toxic, and they're getting sick and they're paying for that with their health."

Ott had already been trying to warn her Alaska community, Cordova, about the dangers of its dependence on oil. In fact, she was giving a speech in nearby Valdez the night the infamous tanker crashed.

"The compensation regimes in place weren't really adequate to deal with anything beyond lost fishing: the property damage, the damage to the communities. And I said, 'We've got to get this figured out, because it's not a matter of if, but when.' And as I was saying that, the Exxon Valdez was finishing loading and pulling away from the dock."

Ott has since written two books on the subject, and is now touring the five Gulf states most affected by the BP oil spill, urging people and local governments to take matters into their own hands. She says those most at risk are the workers who clean up the oil - many of whom she's still treating in Alaska from the spill there.

"And it's not just the Exxon Valdez. I have worked with other oil spills: Spain, South Korea. This is a fall-out: respiratory damage, central nervous system damage, and ultimately DNA damage and chemical sensitivities. It's serious," said Ott.

She also says it's not just the workers. Other high-risk groups include children, pregnant women, African Americans, and people with preexisting conditions such as asthma, or cancer survivors. If she had small children, she told Leon County commissioners Thursday, she'd remove them from oil-affected coastal areas.

"This oil mixture is coming ashore, the displaced oil plus the dispersants, and it's creating a public health epidemic," Ott said.

Ott's tour of Northwest Florida includes local governments, which she's urging to act in their constituents' health and financial interests. She's telling community groups to do the same: a populist message that resonates as Floridians tire of waiting for the authorities. David Rauschkalb:

"Those aligned with oil interests would lead us to believe that Gov. Crist's bold, courageous stand with us is merely grand-standing," he told protesters. "No, he's not grand-standing. Our governor is merely standing with us in protection of everything we hold so dear."

Now, with Crist's signing of an executive order Wednesday allowing Gulf coast property owners to make damage claims to BP, he has aligned himself ever more strongly with that populist wave.