Freshmen Clean Coastline

May 5, 2010

Freshmen Clean Coastline

VALDOSTA -- Freshmen Derek Blanchard and Anthony Still broke from feverish studying the weekend before finals to clear Pensacola beaches of debris, preparing for the oil and muck that will likely suffocate the coast. The 19-year-olds joined hundreds of volunteers during “Operation Clean Sweep” -- one of the many grassroots efforts to fortify the coast against more than 2.6 million gallons of oil drifting toward the shores since the April 20 oilrig explosion off the coast of New Orleans.

President Barack Obama described the leak as “massive and potentially unprecedented” -- killing 11 workers, destroying priceless ocean habitats and hindering cargo and other ships from economic gains. The drilling rig, owned by Transocean Ltd., was being leased by BP Plc, which has taken responsibility for the spill and pledged to finance clean-up efforts. The company has sent thousands of workers to the region and laid thousands of feet of protective boom material in the ocean to prevent oil from reaching shorelines. Pensacola lifeguards are on a 24-hour watch for oil.

“The clean-up opened my eyes a lot,” said Blanchard, who plans to attend law school. “You can’t put a monetary value on the beach. They were still so beautiful when we were down there; and we just kept thinking, ‘Is this really going to happen? Oil all over these beaches?’ You notice the wildlife, the little turtle tracks in the sand, so much more when you know their lives may end because of our mistakes.”

The two learned of the disaster during an introductory mass media class, where their friendship emerged through class projects and study sessions. Instructor Michael Taylor asked his class of 150 students whether they had heard about the oil spill; five students raised their hands. Still and Blanchard were among the oblivious majority.

“The teacher was furious that only five people in the class had heard about this tragic event,” said Still, an Eagle Scout from Clayton County, Ga. “He said he would give us extra credit if we dedicated ourselves to learning about the spill and help out with the efforts. We knew right away that we wanted to help, and I now have on my phone.”

Motivated by a combination of conscience and class credit, Still and Blanchard researched the spill online and made a handful of phone calls to coastal rescue groups. About 5:30 a.m. Sunday morning, they crawled out of bed to head down to the coast. Groggy, but eager, they were among the first volunteers to gather along Casino Beach -- the area’s most popular stretch of white sand. Organizers handed out gloves, trash bags and water to the growing crowd of volunteers and instructed them to pick up only man-made trash. Oil is easier to clean from the sand when it is free of cigarette buts, plastic bags and other garbage that can trap oil in pockets on the coast.

“We picked up trash for about four hours, and by the end of the day, hundreds of people had joined us -- families, retired people, fishermen; the whole community really came out to be a part of this effort,” Blanchard said. “Besides the clean-up, organizers were doing classes at the civic center to teach people how to clean animals and the beach if and when the oil comes. The Coast Guard was out in the water setting up preventative measures.”

Still, who will be a campus resident assistant this fall, said the volunteer effort taught him to pay more attention to the news because he realized the impact he can have on the nation’s top headlines. Blanchard said he came to college “to be productive,” and situations like this remind him of his personal pledge.

“It is not that hard for us to help, and if our livelihood depended on the ocean, we would want others to help us,” said Still, who also volunteers through Habitat for Humanity and Second Harvest Food Bank. “I am a strong believer in karma. If people do good things, then that good will come back around. I have been blessed enough to come to college, and I need to take advantage of being able to help.”