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Opponents of plans to liftoffshore oil drilling bans gathered at Sand Key Park to warn of the potential devastation from spills.

You'll never be able to eat fish from Tampa Bay or the Gulf of Mexico again if oil drilling is allowed within 10 miles of Florida's west coast.

So warned Kathleen McDole, manager of the Friendly Fisherman Seafood Restaurant on Madeira Beach.

With the white beach of Sand Key as a backdrop, she and other business leaders, representatives from environmental organizations, members of the Tampa Bay Beaches Chamber of Commerce and others attended a press conference Monday to warn Floridians about the dangers of near-shore drilling off the coast.

It could cause serious trouble in the event of an accident, opponents say.

Phil Compton, a representative from the Sierra Club, pointed to an image of an Aug. 21 Australian spill at an offshore drilling rig that has covered 5,800 square miles in the Timor Sea as documented by NASA, superimposed on a map of Florida.

Not taking into consideration winds and currents, it shows the oil nearly enveloping Pinellas County.

"Within a week it would be on the east coast,'' he said.

According to Compton, some of the same types of new technology used to drill in Australia is what would be used here, and it should not be trusted.

He said rigs would negatively affect tourism.

"Why is there a big push for this now?" he asked. "There is no reason to push for oil rigs anywhere. There is a glut (of oil).''

Not only that, but the United States is moving in the direction of clean energy, Compton said.

The issue could come up when Gov. Charlie Crist calls the Legislature into a possible special session sometime before the regular session, which begins in March.

If legislation to drill off Florida's coast passed, millions of animals could perish in event of a spill, said Clearwater Marine Aquarium chief executive officer David Yates.

"Marine life cannot digest oil,'' he said, adding they'd be dead, not rescued.

But Thomas Rask, a Largo businessman, said drilling is safe.

"Alaska, Norway and many other places have found a way to combine tourism and safe hydrocarbon production,'' he said, adding he has no financial interest in the possible drilling.

But opponents say Tampa Bay is still feeling the effects of a 1993 oil spill when three ships collided at the mouth of Tampa Bay, sending 328,000 gallons of oil into the water and eventually to the shoreline.

People strolling along the beach sometimes feel it on their feet, the opponents say.

"There are still little tar balls, especially when there's a storm,'' said Lenne Nicklaus-Ball, vice president of the Sirata Beach Resort and Conference Center on St. Pete Beach. "You step on one and it's really squishy. It's like a terminal disease.''

Eileen Schulte can be reached at or (727) 445-4153.