Politics & Government

Offshore drilling protesters join hands

An event didn’t take place Saturday at Manatee Public Beach — officially — because there was no permit for one.

But that didn’t stop about 200 people from showing up at 1 p.m. on the Holmes Beach shoreline, at the western tip of Manatee Avenue West, to join “Hands Across the Sand,” a statewide protest against offshore oil drilling.

Many were dressed in black, the color of oil, to sway the state’s consideration for erecting oil rigs from three to 10 miles from the shoreline.

At 1:30 p.m. they linked hands and stretched up and down the beach, holding hands for 10 minutes.

“Since there were no formal organizers present to organize, everyone just sort of met at the beach,” said Manatee County “Hands Across The Sand” organizer Sandy Ripberger. “It went really well. The turn-out was beyond our expectation.”

At Siesta Public Beach in Sarasota, 262 people braved blustery winds to join hands and face the Gulf of Mexico in an “official” event.

Manatee’s event wasn’t “official” because the Manatee-Sarasota Sierra Group withdrew its sponsorship earlier in the week. The back-off came when the county demanded fees of at least $125, plus a damage deposit in order to issue an event permit.

Ripberger doesn’t believe there was any intention on the county’s part to derail the protest, only to collect money for a permit.

“I think Manatee County would try to collect this for any large group that met,” Ripberger said. “But this was just a meeting of people on the beach. It’s unfortunate that people can’t express their constitutional rights and have to get a permit.”

In the end, the real business at hand was to express concern for the gentle ecology of sand and waves, event attendees said.

“The Florida coastline has captured my heart and I don’t want to see anybody spoil it,” said protestor Summer Jenkins, of Venice, who came to Siesta Beach with her son Dorian, 7. “What impressed me is that we had a huge diversity of people here today. There’s a great feeling of unity here.”

The event called the public’s attention to a potential alarm, Ripberger said.

“I think the protest was needed because I don’t think the public is aware that the state is considering oil drilling so close to shore,” she said. “The state seems to want to get a leg up on some oil revenues, but I think revenues would be small compared to tourism.”

Oil leaks could be visibly ugly and environmentally disastrous, Ripberger said.

“We don’t have tar balls in our water here, but I am certain we would if they allowed rigs close to shore,” said Ripberger, who also cited concerns about mercury levels in fish that live near oil rigs.

“I think most estimates are that we could conserve more money than we would make from oil if we develop programs of alternative energy.”

As for Manatee’s nonevent, it just sort of evolved on its own.

“We had all ages,” Ripberger said. “There was some chanting. Someone sang ‘The Star Spangled Banner.’ We were the only ones on the beach because it was so cold.”

At Siesta Beach, several bongo drummers created a beat as the throng walked toward the shoreline.

Seeing the huge crowd making its way down to the water was thrilling for Renee Moss, who had organized the Siesta Key event after hearing about “Hands Across The Sand” while listening to the radio in November.

She called “Hands” creator Dave Rauschkolb, a Panhandle businessman and surfer, and was appointed Sarasota coordinator.

“The first thing that impressed me was seeing all the people walking to the water,” Moss said. “It sang to my heart. My grandparents are from Naples and when I was little we would come to Siesta. It is so beautiful here. It’s a special place we must save.”

Rauschkolb expected people to congregate at about 80 sites along both coasts. He noted that the permit conflict seemed unique to Manatee.

No follow-up event planned in Manatee or Sarasota, but Ripberger said she wouldn’t be surprised if people assemble in Holmes Beach for a 10-minute linking of hands every Saturday at 1:30 p.m.

“Some said it would be good to do that,” she said.

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.

— The St. Petersburg Times contributed to this report.