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Oil Spill Dwarfs Florida’s Other Environmental Problems

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By Bill Steiden

Stand on the wood-planked city pier in the Gulf Coast island town of Anna Maria on a sunny spring afternoon and you’ll be dazzled. The water stretching before you shades from clear Caribbean blue to the deeper green of central Tampa Bay. The shores are bright with sugar-white sand. Tall stands of long-needled pines sway in the breeze. Gulls wheel in the blindingly blue sky, and the condo towers of downtown St. Petersburg are visible in the far distance. It’s the sort of idyllic scene that has caught at the hearts of Florida visitors since Hernando de Soto sailed into this bay in 1539.

But Florida’s beauty is as deceptive as it is overwhelming. Like cleverly applied cosmetics, her outward charms hide festering wounds.

In Tampa Bay, a foul combination of sewage and road runoff flows continually into the estuary, whose once-remote shores now teem with millions of residents. Fuel and bilge spills from ships en route to and from the bay’s commercial ports are not infrequent, and towering tailing dumps from phosphate mines on the eastern shore add their own special poison to the mix.

As the water, inviting though it appears, has grown increasingly murky, fish stocks have plummeted. It is said the annual spawning run of mullet was once so dense that their leaping silver bodies filled the bay and its surrounding creeks and rivers. Now the fish, long sold for pennies a pound, are often in short supply. It’s easier to find farm-grown seafood imported from South America and Asia in the local supermarkets than anything pulled from the nearby waters.

Contributing to the growing dearth has been the devastation of the bay bottom. Once covered with fields of seagrass that served as a nursery to young aquatic life, it is bare and scarred in large patches, gouged by the hulls and propellers of recreational boaters who buzz continually along the bay.

Up close, the white of the shoreline often proves to be little more than a thin fringe interspersed with rocky outcroppings. Man-made structures and channels have changed the currents and eroded much of the sand, while the destruction of the natural dunes for waterfront development has disrupted the natural cycle of beach replacement. Deposits of beer cans and bottles strew the bay’s shallows, and it’s not unusual to see a pelican or anhinga trailing a strand of fishing line secured in its beak by a discarded hook.

Once rare, the dreaded red tide has become an almost annual visitor, a microorganic bloom apparently set off by a mysterious combination of global warming and the nutrient load resulting from water pollution. Like the blood-red Nile of the Old Testament, it reeks of death as it chokes the sea life, killing everything from hermit crabs to manatees.

Even the pines on the shoreline are a symptom of the bay’s distress. Imported from Australia to shade beachgoers, they have in many places crowded out the native flora.

The air itself is becoming a hazard, as the Gulf breeze is no longer sufficient to whisk away the fumes generated by the explosion of automobile traffic.

It’s a scene repeated throughout the state. In the Keys, coral reefs are dwindling. The Everglades are drying up. Industrial operations threaten North Florida’s magnificent and mysterious springs. Sinkholes open in Central Florida as aquifers are drained to water residential lawns and amusement park landscapes. Other thirsty cities in states to the north have depleted the flow of the Panhandle’s Appalachicola River, and the famous oyster beds in the bay it feeds are struggling to survive in the increasingly saline water.

But all this has been a slow-motion disaster, one of which many Florida residents are blissfully unaware. They arrived only after it had taken hold, and lack a frame of reference to understand the long-term effects of its incremental and interrelated changes. As long as they see the sun, the sand and the water, they assume all is well.

The oil is different. Once it hits their beaches and reefs, there will be no denying its impact. The greasy mess will stain the beaches and mangrove swamps for years. Remaining stocks of aquatic life and the birds and animals dependent on them will plummet. Tourism, the state’s lifeblood, will whither, remaining depressed even after the oil dissipates.

Already, the “Drill Here, Drill Now” bumper stickers are coming off Floridians’ cars as they vow to fight the offshore drilling they once so enthusiastically welcomed.

But there’s little reason to believe that the tide-driven holocaust will awaken them to the reality of their dilemma: that the oil is just one symptom of a larger environmental disaster, driven by uncontrolled growth and reckless overdevelopment, that is slowly killing the state they purport to love.

Editor’s note: Any opinions expressed herein are not necessarily those of Where2Now, the publisher or editor.

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