ST. PETERSBURG — They admitted fear at what may lie deep beneath the water of the Gulf of Mexico.
They called for a long-term commitment for its restoration from the ravages of the Deepwater Horizon oil disaster.
They wanted help, development of more renewable energy sources, and a government open and willing to share all its research information.
But the standing-room-only audience of more than 250 at a town hall meeting Tuesday in St. Petersburg managed to retain an air of dignity, civic concern and even a touch of good humor. The meeting was presided over by U.S. Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus, focusing on long-term plans for restoration.
President Barack Obama has charged Mabus with developing a plan, and he listened to the questions and comments of dozens of citiizens.
Environmentalists and fishermen wanted to know what impact millions of gallons of chemical dispersant put in the water to break up the spill would have on marine life and people who might just play in the surf.
Susan McMillan, representing Protect Our Waters, Inc., a newly-formed Sarasota nonprofit that opposes use of chemical dispersant, told Mabus that her group was “really upset” about its use.
“This chemical has been banned in several countries in Europe,” she said, referring to use of the dispersant Corexit as a ghoulish experiment.
Her comments were seconded by Capt. Bob Zales II, who operates Zodiac Charter Fleet in Panama City.
He said as a fisherman, he had worked in various places, where he heard fears expressed about the possible damage dispersants might do over time to marine life deep beneath the surface.
“It’s been highly questionable,” he said. “There is a lot of concern about this dispersant.” He added that charter customers have abandoned Florida for other fishing destinations.
“We’re going to have to totally rebuild our business,” Zales said, noting that the spill “is far worse than any hurricane we’ve sustained.”
The crowd provided a round of applause for the idea of moving away from fossil fuels altogether and toward sources of renewable energy.
Lorraine Margeson, representing the Suncoast Shorebird Partnership, whose members work along the Florida West Coast, complained that the way beaches were cleaned of oil with heavy machinery was devastating to beach nesting birds.
“We know and we’re confident these species will be inhibited or curtailed for years to come,” she said. She advocated increased conservation protection in Florida, most of which remains pristine, so it might serve as a nursery for creatures from areas destroyed by oil.
“We’ve got the army already, just put us to work,” she said.
Monday, the Navy chief visited Alabama; Tuesday he appeared in St. Petersburg and Panama City. Wednesday he’s slated to be in Mississippi, Thursday in Louisiana, and Friday in Texas.
The White House has made a point of referring to Mabus as a “son of the Gulf,” and it’s clear that the soft-spoken former governor feels the responsibility.
He told the crowd that any sort of plan for restoration to make the Gulf whole has got to start with those who live, work and raise their families there.
“It must come from local individuals that know more about the economy and environment of this region than anybody else,” he said.