Column by Madeline Ostrander
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Dave Rauschkolb took on the oil industry when it got personal—it threatened his beach and his business.
Rauschkolb is not an environmental lawyer or professional Sierra Club-type. He’s an avid surfer and owns a pizza bar on the northwest coast of Florida, within range of the BP spill. Rauschkolb has never called himself an activist. But he was so incensed that state and federal politicians let the oil industry take a gamble on the safety of drilling in the Gulf Coast that he recently organized a protest called “Hands Across the Sand.” What started just weeks ago as an idea on a website mushroomed into more than 900 events in all 50 states and more than 30 other countries—thousands of people who linked hands on beaches to take a stand for protecting coastlines and waterways.
Many people have a profound connection to their rivers, lakes, oceans, and reservoirs. “It doesn’t matter if you’re a Democrat or a Republican, or an environmentalist or a businessperson,” Rauschkolb says. “Floridians are passionate about their coastal heritage, as much as Americans are passionate about their coastal heritage.”
Since water is a universal, basic human need, threats to our water become immediate, personal and frightening. That may be why Rauschkolb’s demonstrations appealed to so many, why the public gets so upset by threats to water, and why groups like the Waterkeepers can attract such ardent citizen advocates. Waterkeepers are known for using their own boats, canoes, and kayaks to patrol rivers. Robert Kennedy Jr. helped found the Waterkeepers, which started as a group of fishermen who were enraged over Penn Central Railroad’s practice of dumping oil into the Croton River, north of New York City. Starting in the 1980s, Kennedy went to some extremes to clean up the river and end dumping. In an interview with YES! Magazine, he described crawling up a discharge pipe to gather evidence to use in suing polluters.
Water is part of our common public trust. That’s a simple, democratic idea that has no party lines. Legal principles that are part of our environmental laws and date back to before the
Magna Carta give every one of us the right to access clean beaches and drinkable water. Those principles also imply that we have a responsibility: We—the people, businesses, civic associations, and government—have to protect our water so that everyone is able to use it.
Americans’ passion for protecting water has long been a force behind the environmental movement. Anger over the 1969 oil rig blowout in Santa Barbara, with its images of oiled birds and polluted beaches, led to the creation of the first Earth Day in 1970. Today, the destructive effects of our fossil fuel economy on our coasts and rivers have never been clearer.
Rural Tennessee is still recovering from the 2008 coal-ash spill that smothered rivers and wetlands with toxic sludge. New processes of natural gas extraction, which involve injecting chemicals below the ground surface, are rendering water sources across the country undrinkable. A rash of new natural gas projects in upstate New York has led American Rivers to list the Upper Delaware River, a water source for 17 million people, as the nation’s most threatened stream. In the rural West, some water supplies have become so contaminated with the byproducts of gas drilling that homeowners can light their tap water on fire. Meanwhile, the State Department is considering a proposal to allow Canadian oil companies to build an oil pipeline from Canada to Texas that would cross the Ogallala Aquifer, exposing the water source for communities in eight states to the risk of oil leaks.
Most Americans can recite the reasons why we need to move away from the fossil fuel economy—climate change, dwindling supplies of easy-to-access oil, dependence on foreign sources of energy—but much of the damage caused by our fossil-fuel addiction is hidden from view. When it shows up on our beaches or in our water glasses, it’s enough to make you want to paddle out in a canoe and raise a ruckus, or get out of your car, or join a throng of people on the beach and demand a new energy policy and climate bill.
Madeline Ostrander is senior editor of YES! Magazine.