Hundreds line Pinellas County beaches to protest near-shore oil drilling

In a show of solidarity against drilling off Florida, hundreds of protesters form a line along the coast at St. Pete Beach on Saturday.

LARA CERRI | Times

In a show of solidarity against drilling off Florida, hundreds of protesters form a line along the coast at St. Pete Beach on Saturday.

ST. PETE BEACH — Bob Ullmark didn't have any trouble explaining why he came to the beach on a chilly, windy Saturday.

"We don't want any nasty oil in the water," said Ullmark, 53, of St. Petersburg.

Neither did U.S. Rep. C.W. Bill Young, R-Indian Shores: "We're not going to stand here and allow drilling right off these beautiful beaches."

Hundreds lined Pinellas County's beaches and many more came to more than 70 coastal locations around Florida to protest the idea of drilling close to the state's shoreline. They dressed in black, the color of an oil spill, and held hands in a long lines running down several beaches, including Clearwater Beach, Treasure Island and Indian Rocks Beach.

At Stuart Beach, Brent McAhren said, "I've seen Louisiana's beaches fouled with oil from rigs, and I don't want it here." In Fort Lauderdale, some demonstrators showed up in alligator, dolphin and mermaid outfits. In Pinellas County, an airplane towed a banner that read, "Love tourists — not drilling."

The overall message was "no drilling off our coast," said Phil Compton, regional representative for the Sierra Club, one of the organizers. "Our $65 billion tourism economy is worth far more than any return we might get for drilling."

Compton said a major oil spill would get sucked into Florida's looping water current and possibly spread oil around the state, devastating tourism.

At a gathering of supporters in St. Pete Beach just before everyone lined up, Democrats such as Pinellas Commissioner Ken Welch, state Rep. Rick Kriseman, and state Sen. Charlie Justice joined Republicans such as state Rep. Jim Frishe, state Sen. Dennis Jones and Young.

"This is bipartisan, you have Republicans and Democrats," Kriseman said.

Bipartisan, but not necessarily unanimous. High oil prices, the faltering economy and a quest for U.S. energy independence have led more people to push for drilling.

A bill to expand oil drilling near Florida's coastline passed the Florida House last year, but failed in the Senate. Some members of Congress have advocated changing laws to allow drilling closer to Florida.

In October, 54 percent of Florida voters supported drilling off the state's coast and 40 percent opposed it, according to a St. Petersburg Times/Miami Herald/Bay News 9 poll.

But the demonstrators at "Hands Across the Sand" on Saturday said that could be a disaster, especially in the case of an oil spill.

"We don't want to see any environmental catastrophes," added Kathy Sterling, 30, of St. Petersburg, who brought her 1-year-old daughter, Lily.

Information from the Stuart News and the South Florida Sun-Sentinel was used in this report.

Hundreds line Pinellas County beaches to protest near-shore oil drilling 02/13/10 [Last modified: Sunday, February 14, 2010 8:50am]

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