Catastrophes like the spill in the Gulf expose the destructive side of industries and their environmental impacts. They also create unexpected heroes, ordinary people like Lois Gibbs, propelled into the political arena when industrial waste exposed her community in Love Canal, New York, to cancer-causing chemicals. Three decades after her story forced America to grapple with industries’ toxic legacy, the tar balls that are washing onto Florida’s beaches are galvanizing a new movement, started by Dave Rauschkolb, a surfer and pizza bar owner.
Rauschkolb is not a professional Sierra-Club type and seems offended when asked about his political affiliation. But his business depends on tourism, and he’s incensed that state and federal politicians let the oil industry take a gamble on the safety of drilling in the Gulf Coast. “I am very angry that our predictions to Florida’s legislators that this type of accident could happen fell on deaf ears,” Rauschkolb wrote in a recent op-ed. “We have been telling them for months of our serious concerns.”
His anger has turned him into an activist. Rauschkolb created “Hands Across the Sand,” a series of demonstrations on Saturday, June 26, that call for an end to offshore oil drilling. The events are simple: Show up at 11 A.M. at your local waterfront, and join hands at noon. Demonstrations are happening in all 50 states and more than 30 countries.
Rauschkolb got the idea for Hands last fall when he heard about a bill in the Florida legislature that would have brought offshore drilling within 10 miles of his beloved beaches. He decided to organize what he expected would be a modest local demonstration on the beach, but his message struck a nerve among Floridians. The protest mushroomed into a 10,000-person event on dozens of beaches across the state. Rauschkolb believes that the response helped kill the bill in committee before it reached the floor of the Florida senate.
Now he hopes that news of the BP spill will mobilize enough Americans to force sweeping change—not just a tough response to BP but a transformation of U.S. energy policies.
I called Rauschkolb in Florida to find out what he expected Hands to accomplish.
Madeline Ostrander: How large do you hope Hands Across the Sand will be?
Dave Rauschkolb: We think it's going to be the largest anti-offshore oil drilling gathering of people in the history of the world. We're getting new sign-ups every day. When we held the demonstration in Florida in February, we estimated that 10,000 to 12,000 people participated. We organized 80 beaches. We had events from Jacksonville to Miami and from Key West all the way to Pensacola.
Madeline: What outcome are you hoping for?
Dave: For starters, a permanent ban on offshore drilling.
And I think it's time to make a major change. This is an opportunity for a paradigm shift. My greatest hope is that America’s response to the Deepwater Horizon incident will steer us away from our dependence on oil.
This is an opportunity for Americans to get it into their consciousness: Oil companies have been poisoning our energy policy and our political process with money and influence for far too long. The oil industry is calling the shots here, and it's time for Americans to take charge of their own energy future instead of allowing the oil companies to continue to dictate what kind of fuels we use.
President Obama is speaking the right language, but I'm concerned that the federal government is going to make BP the scapegoat, change some of the regulations and the safety issues, and give everyone the illusion that we’ve put the problem behind us. I believe far too much focus is being placed on BP. BP is definitely at fault and should be held accountable. But this should be an indictment on the entire offshore oil-drilling industry.
Any company could have done this. As recently as 10 months ago, off of Australia in the Timor Sea, a deepwater rig had a blowout and a subsequent fire. It took them three months to cap that leak by drilling a relief well. It didn't get a lot of press, and no one was really paying attention.
But excuse me, this has happened twice in the last year! And that was an entirely different company. It's obvious that the oil companies don’t have measures and technology in place to handle these situations. And it's just beyond me that we would consider allowing them to continue. We have oil on our faces now. Shame on any politician who is advocating expanded offshore oil drilling.
No one industry should be allowed to make mistakes that put so many people's lives and livelihoods at risk. The only way that we're going to get off our dependence on oil is to change our energy policies so that renewable energy industries can flourish. These are industries that will add a tremendous number of jobs to America's economy and won’t endanger our coastal economies, our wildlife, and our marine environments—or our air quality or atmosphere.
Madeline: When did you first become so passionate in your opposition to offshore drilling and to oil?
Dave: In October of 2009, I held a meet-and-greet on the beach at my restaurant in Seaside for David Pleat, who’s running for the state house of representatives in District 7. He gave an impassioned speech about his opposition to a bill in the state legislature that would lift the ban on nearshore oil drilling in Florida and allow drilling between three and ten miles of our beaches.
Right before he gave the speech, I was in a conversation, and I had said the words, "We need to draw a line in the sand about this and do what we can to stop it."
I'm sitting there next to my wife, and I got a flash of an idea: How great would it be for Floridians to join hands on the beaches and literally form that line in the sand? So I made a short speech challenging the people gathered there to do that.
I wrote up a mission statement the next day, and I got some friends of mine to create a website. Within about three months I was able to build support among environmental groups, including the Surfrider Foundation, Sierra Club, Audubon Society, Emerald Coastkeeper, and many more. And in Florida I was able to get the support of every Chamber of Commerce from Pensacola to Panama City.
Madeline: How did policymakers respond to the demonstration in February?
Dave: I definitely feel that we played a role in getting that bill tabled for the year. And we definitely made more Floridians aware of the issue of nearshore drilling.
Now, Florida’s governor, Charlie Crist, has made an announcement that he is going to try to call a special session [to take up an amendment to the state constitution]. If the amendment passed, it would give Floridians the chance in November to vote on a permanent ban on nearshore oil drilling in Florida. I applaud Governor Crist's conviction with this situation because, to me, anything that takes the issue out of the hands of the politicians and puts this decision into the hands of Floridians is a good thing.
Madeline: Were you involved in environmental issues before you organized these demonstrations?
Dave: No. I’ve never labeled myself as an activist. I'm pretty much a restaurateur. And I've been a surfer for 33 years. I've spent a lot of time in the Gulf of Mexico. I’ve witnessed every single hurricane. And I've lived in Florida for most of my life.
I'm passionate about protecting the Gulf of Mexico and Florida. I'm passionate about my community on many levels. I live in a wonderful place—North Florida is just an amazing place to make your life. And again, I'm only one person. All of the people who live and own businesses here are going to have to make a decision based on how that oil impacts us. This oil spill may scatter entire communities to the wind, much like Katrina did.
Madeline: Do you consider yourself a Democrat, Republican, or independent?
Dave: I don't think it matters whether I'm a Democrat or a Republican or independent in this context. I'm an American. And I care deeply about my home, our future, and about preserving the coastline and beautiful Gulf of Mexico for my seven-month-old daughter. And I think I represent a lot of Americans who feel the same way.
This has nothing to do with politics. This is about the protection of our coastal economies. I'm just one person. I've got three restaurants and 150 employees. And as this oil hits my beaches, if we don't have a full business season, I very well might have to put 150 people out of work. And I'm only one of thousands of people who are threatened by this in three coastal states.
It's time that Americans stop thinking like Democrats and Republicans. The news media have got us all bickering at each other. We need to be focused on the industries that are stifling our economic recovery. I'm finding through this national campaign that there are a lot of people who agree with me. And I talk to people all across the nation every single night, when they call me or they email me.
I think that this event resonates for people because it is something that we all agree on. We need more things in this country that don't divide us. We need more things that bring us together and make us proud to be Americans. It's my hope that this event may be one thing that can help Americans find common ground—so that we can stop beating each other up in conversations.
I just hope that our politicians will listen.
Madeline: Does the response to Hands Across the Sand make you feel hopeful?
Dave: Oh I'm very hopeful. I truly am. People from Hawai`i to Maine are going to be joining in, along with people from Japan; Majorca, Spain; and Tanzania. And hopefully, our politicians will begin to join hands as well and understand that renewable energy is where we need to go.
- : When an oil spill coated birds in San Francisco Bay 40 years ago, he quit driving. Then he quit speaking. We asked him what he learned in that process that can help us deal with the BP oil spill.
- : In the past weeks, anger at the BP oil disaster has turned into action.