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Date of Issue: June 23, 2010

Hundreds assemble for oil spill meeting

The audience for the town meeting on the Deepwater Horizon oil disaster. The meeting took place June 17 at the Anna Maria Island Community Center, 407 Magnolia Ave., Anna Maria.

Charlie Hunsicker, director of Manatee County’s natural resources department, stresses the importance of cleaning up the oil before it reaches more shores.

Panelists Charlie Hunsicker, Laurie Feagans and Richard Pierce listen to Mike Shannon open the town meeting June 17 at the Anna Maria Island Community Center.

Paula Shortz prays nightly that when she takes her morning beach walks she sees only black skimmers, not skimmer vessels.

“I’m just horrified at the thought of oil off our beach,” said Shortz, a resident of Longboat Key.

Shortz gathered with hundreds of people in the Anna Maria Island Community Center gym June 17 for a town meeting on the Deepwater Horizon oil disaster.

“I’ve been reading, of course,” Shortz said of news accounts of the British Petroleum Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. “But I wanted to hear information first-hand and I wanted to say, ‘I’m ready to do whatever needs to be done to minimize this disaster.’”

The town meeting, held on the 58th day of the spill, was sponsored by Keep OFF Manatee, a grassroots group founded by Mike Shannon, manager of the BeachHouse Restaurant in Bradenton Beach.

Welcoming the crowd to the Center in Anna Maria, Shannon said he wanted to call a meeting to make sure that Manatee “is the most well-prepared county.”

Panelists included Manatee County Commissioner Carol Whitmore, county emergency management chief Laurie Feagans, county natural resources department director Charlie Hunsicker, business owners Ed Chiles and Karen Bell, homeowner Peter Clark, convention and tourism bureau executive Elliott Falcione and Mote Marine Laboratory senior scientist Richard Pierce.

Many people in the audience wanted to express their anger over the spill and the delays in containing the leak and cleaning up the oil, and their opposition to drilling in the Gulf of Mexico.

Late in the evening an anti-oil protester was escorted from the hall for disrupting the program.

Another protester stood outside the Center handing out leaflets for an anti-oil demonstration June 26 on the beach.

“What’s crazy about all this is we have a disaster and we still have people who aren’t for banning deepwater drilling in the Gulf of Mexico,” said Joe Hernandez of Bradenton. “Wake up America. Wake up Manatee. What’s it going to take?”

Many others, in the audience, shared an anti-drilling attitude.

“The Gulf of Mexico is what brought me and my family here,” said Sandy Hewitt of Bradenton Beach. “It’s precious. And this disaster means we all have to change the way we live and the way we conduct business and the way we make energy policy.”

The town meeting, however, was not a forum for protest but a forum for information and education about the local response to the current situation.

The audience was particularly attentive when Pierce, who discussed the nature of the spill and the science of the oil and its course in the Gulf, spoke.

Many also listened closely to Hunsicker, who discussed the contingency plan for responding to oil in local waters and on local shores.

While the county is on watch, Hunsicker said the area’s waters are being sampled and tested to document conditions to determine any oil impact in the future.

In the event oil makes its way to Manatee County, Hunsicker said the “response will be measured and deliberate.”

The plan would involve placing boom to direct oil away from the most fragile environmental areas, such as the mangrove preserves of Leffis Key and Grassypoint and Robinson Preserve.

“What is the value placed on birth of a brown pelican?” Hunsicker said. “Not all values are traded on Wall Street.”

Town meeting attendee Bonnie Kennedy said Hunsicker’s report moved her to tears.

“This is breaking my heart,” said the Bradenton resident. “All the money in the world won’t make it right.”

As of June 17, federal authorities had reported oiled brown pelicans, herons, egrets, spoonbills, stilts, terns, gulls and sanderlings, as well as oiled sea turtles, dolphins and fish.

Bell discussed the impact of the spill on Cortez’s commercial fishers and the seafood industry.

“We are holding our own,” she said, but noted the closure of some deepwater fishing grounds in the Gulf of Mexico and a misconception outside the state about the safety of seafood.

From Feagans, the audience heard about the daily briefings involving the county’s emergency response team.

“We are organized,” said Feagans.

She added, “It hurts me so bad that we have to go through this.… It’s 366 miles away. We hope it stays that far.”

Oil however, has hit Florida’s northwest coast.

“I don’t want to see what happened in Perdido Bay happen here,” said Chiles, encouraging Islanders to remain invested in a local response.

Tar balls ranging from dime-sized to softball-sized were found widely scattered in on the northwest Florida coast last week.

In some areas of the Panhandle, oil washed over and under boom, prompting the U.S. Coast Guard to authorize the closure of Perdido and Pensacola passes and prompting citizen complaints about a lack of preparedness.

Areas of Louisiana and Alabama continued to report more extensive damage and again, a lack of preparedness to stop the oil.

Hunsicker said local officials were urging an aggressive cleanup effort in the Gulf to keep oil from polluting more coasts.

“We can and will intercept this oil at sea,” Hunsicker said.

Galvano, referring to the Deepwater damage, said the Deepwater spill is a call to action — not just of containment and cleanup, but to end the debate about oil drilling in the Gulf of Mexico.