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Gulf oil spill washes up in St. Louis as Gulf Coast residents bring message of clean energy

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, July 14, 2010 - Oil and tar balls from the BP oil spill washed up today in an unlikely place -- a St. Louis public library. The oil, contained in glass jars, was brought to St. Louis by three Gulf Coast residents as part of a national "Gulf Voices" initiative to raise awareness about the dangers of oil and other fossil fuels. The initiative is funded by Clean Energy Works (CEW), a coalition of more than 80 environmental groups, labor unions and other grassroots organizations pushing for climate and energy legislation.

Last month, the coalition sent 100 Gulf Coast residents to Washington, D.C., to speak with senators about the oil spill and encourage the passage of a comprehensive energy bill to limit CO2 emissions.

"Everybody in D.C. was so effective and had such great stories that we felt it was important to share it (elsewhere)," says Vanessa Crawford, Missouri chairman of the Alliance for Climate Protection, one of the groups that organized today's event at Schlafly Public Library.

Accordingly, the CEW coalition selected about 20 people to travel across the country to explain how the oil spill has affected their lives and why it should matter to everyone.

"It's very difficult to imagine if you live in Missouri that what's happening there can have an impact here," says Rick Roberts of Sarasota, Fla., one of the three speakers at today's roundtable. Roberts is executive director of the Snook Foundation, a fishing and conservation organization.

Roberts pointed to higher seafood prices across America and warned of newly unemployed fishing and tourism workers who will be "knocking on your door and taking your jobs away from you."

Linda Schuch is one such fishing industry worker. She runs the Island Market, a seafood market in St. Petersburg, Fla., and joined Roberts at today's event. Schuch said rising seafood prices and customers' fears about safety have devastated her business. She and her husband have considered selling their business and leaving Florida. "But we couldn't even do that if we wanted to," she said. "Who's going to buy a fish market?"

Linda Hawkins, the third speaker, discussed the spill's local environmental impact. As she described the oil's damage to wildlife in bayous near her home in Lousiana, Hawkins grew teary-eyed. "It's just so hard to talk about it," she said. "It hurts your heart."

The three Gulf Coast residents agree that the best response to the oil spill is to push the country to develop cleaner energy sources. "We need clean energy," Roberts said. "We need to be moving in that direction now." Schuch, who says she pays $750 a month to power her market, called for alternatives to electricity produced from fossil fuels. "My state is called the Sunshine State," she remarked. "And I can't power my market from the sun?"

Roberts said the crisis in the Gulf convinced him to buy solar panels for his home. In fact, before the oil spill, he was less interested in global warming and energy issues. "Listen, I'm a conservative," he said. "I never thought I'd be here with this group talking about this problem because I've always seen it as being liberal and kind of airy-fairy." But now Roberts has changed his mind. "I think it's an eye opener for everybody," he remarked, referring to the oil spill. "It's like a big pie in your face."

About 25 people showed up to hear Roberts, Schuch and Hawkins, but most needed little convincing to support climate and clean energy legislation. Members of environmental groups, including Climate Action St. Louis, 1Sky and Missouri Renewable Energy (MORE), were all in attendance. "That's the problem," says 1Sky's regional coordinator Adam Hasz. "We need to get this outside of the environmentalists. This is a problem that everyone needs to know about."

Roberts believes the oil spill presents a unique opportunity to publicize the threat of climate change and develop a clean energy policy. "If this doesn't do it, what will?" he asked. "Does the earth need to open up and swallow us before we get our collective heads together?"

Hodiah Nemes, a student at Yale, is an intern at the Beacon.

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