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Longtime drilling opponent sees Floridians' attitudes changing

PENSACOLA — She tried to warn them.

For 17 years, Enid Sisskin has been predicting a disaster from oil drilling in the Gulf of Mexico. Sometimes the university professor has been cheered by crowds, but more often she has been jeered, insulted or simply ignored.

Now, with a BP well spewing 210,000 gallons of oil a day and threatening to put a slick on Pensacola Beach, Sisskin could be telling everyone, "I told you so."

But she isn't. She hates this.

She was so stricken by the footage she saw on television last week that she couldn't sit down and grade papers the way she was supposed to. Instead she went out to look at the beach, memorizing it the way it looks now, before any oil arrives.

"This is a major tragedy," she said. "My stomach's been hurting for the past week, because I've seen the disaster I've been screaming about for the past 17 years is going to come true."

Sisskin is a mother of two who will only give her age as "middle-aged." Trained in pathology, she teaches public health courses at the University of West Florida. She had not paid much attention to the continuing debate over offshore drilling before she and her husband, Riley Hoggard, moved to the Florida Panhandle in 1993.

"This was not anything I had ever had to think about before," she said.

But then her husband, the resource manager at Gulf Islands National Seashore, was invited to speak to a small group that had just been formed called Gulf Coast Environmental Defense "and being a good wife I went with him."

She wound up offering the group her expertise. Before her teaching career, she had reviewed environmental impact statements for Everglades National Park. As a result, she said, "I know how to take them apart."

At the time, Chevron was trying to get permission to drill in the Destin Dome area about 25 miles off Pensacola Beach. Sisskin dug into the impact statements prepared for the project and pulled out facts that she considered damning.

She found lists of the toxic material produced routinely during drilling. She found reports that sea turtles died from swallowing the tar balls from oil spills. She found discussions of the likelihood that any spill would wind up tainting the coastline and causing permanent damage.

"Enid always does her homework," said Susan Glickman of the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy, an ally of Sisskin's. When she writes op-ed articles about drilling, Glickman said, they wind up being passed around among other drilling foes "and used in testimony to Congress."

David Mica of the Florida Petroleum Council is more dismissive of Sisskin, whom he regards as something of an extremist.

"She's been a consistent naysayer," he said. "As far as she's concerned, there's never anywhere (to drill) that's far enough or safe enough."

Over the years, even though her organization has a mere 40 members, Sisskin has been interviewed by everyone from her hometown paper to National Public Radio. Her minor celebrity has not led to popularity. One letter sent to her contained one of her columns about the risks of offshore drilling with the word "LIES!" scrawled across it in capital letters.

She has been called an "eco-terrorist," she said, and more than once people who were much bigger than her have leaned in close to her face to tell her they didn't like what she had to say. Her favorite, she said, is being called "Chicken Little."

"Well you know what? The sky fell," she said.

When she gives a speech, Sisskin generally does not tell jokes. She does not banter. She gets right to the point, her New Yorker's voice carrying an urgent tone. Although she has a doctorate, she sticks to short, punchy sentences to get her message across.

At a public hearing in Pensacola on the Chevron proposal in 1998, Sisskin was one of 1,000 people who turned out to oppose drilling. When she spoke, the crowd cheered. That was the high point.

The low came in 2008 when the statewide tourism association held a forum in Tallahassee to discuss offshore drilling. The other speakers included Mica and executives from Shell Oil. Sisskin was the only one contending it wasn't safe. The association voted to side with the oil companies.

She can see the attitudes changing again as Floridians realize their beaches and coastline could be in jeopardy.

"People are walking around like there's been a death in the family," Sisskin said.

Maybe now, she said, everyone will stop contending that offshore drilling is safe and the only concern is whether the rigs are close enough to be seen from the beach.

"I think people will now finally understand that this is not some improbable, unlikely scenario," she said. "And there is no 'far enough away.' "

Times researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report.

Longtime drilling opponent sees Floridians' attitudes changing 05/10/10 [Last modified: Monday, May 10, 2010 9:44pm]
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