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Lawmakers Sort Out Details Of Oil Spill Money

Leon County Judge John Cooper on June 30, 2022, in a screen grab from The Florida Channel.
Associated Press
The Florida Channel
Leon County Judge John Cooper on June 30, 2022, in a screen grab from The Florida Channel.

With billions of dollars coming to Florida in reparation for the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, a Senate panel Tuesday tried to get a better feel for how the money will be spent.

Drew Bartlett, deputy secretary for ecosystem restoration at the Florida Department of Environmental Protection, told members of the Senate Agriculture Committee that the money will flow through several channels.

The 2010 spill in the Gulf of Mexico directly damaged the state's tourism and fishing industries as well as its environment, but also had indirect effects as far away as the Florida Keys.

That's partly why senators were interested in one of the buckets of money Bartlett described, $364 million that Florida counties will divide under what is known as the federal RESTORE Act. Seventy-five percent of the money, or $273 million, goes to the eight hardest-hit counties --- Escambia, Okaloosa, Bay, Walton, Santa Rosa, Franklin, Gulf and Wakulla.

The other 25 percent, or $91 million, goes to 15 counties, ranging from Taylor to Monroe, along the coast.

"The environmental damages were largely seen in the Panhandle area," Bartlett said. "But when you get to recreation and economic damages, during that time when the newscasts were showing the oil spill … a lot of vacations were canceled. We saw a lot of loss of economic revenue in counties throughout the Gulf."

"Was it fear, or actual economic damage to those counties?" asked Sen. Eleanor Sobel, D-Hollywood.

"In the southern counties, it was fear," he replied.

Committee Chairman Bill Montford, D-Tallahassee, asked whether any of the money was earmarked for county commissions to make their own decisions about projects to fund.

"Who blesses these decisions?" he asked.

Under the RESTORE Act, the U.S. Department of the Treasury has a direct relationship with the coastal counties, said Mimi Drew, a Florida trustee for the National Resource Damage Assessment and a representative to what is known as the RESTORE Council.

"The coastal counties develop the plan, send it to Treasury," Drew said. "When Treasury is comfortable with the plan, then the funding goes directly to those counties."

The deadly explosion aboard the drilling rig owned by BP and operated by Transocean is considered the largest marine oil spill in the history of the industry. It killed 11 people and sent millions of gallons of oil into the Gulf of Mexico, taking months to cap and seal the well.

"We lost more than 50,000 birds, more than 50,000 sea turtles," Bartlett said. "Much of the shoreline was impacted by oil, and a slick was detected the size of Virginia."

Florida will collect $680 million from the National Resource Damage Assessment and $356 million from the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation for restoration projects. It will also net at least $676.5 from the RESTORE Act, formally known as the 2012 Resources and Ecosystems Sustainability, Tourist Opportunities, and Revived Economies of the Gulf Coast States Act.

Much of the money will be paid over a 15-year period. Both BP and Transocean will contribute to each fund.

Additionally, the state will receive $2 billion for economic damages, which will flow through the Attorney General's Office.

Triumph Gulf Coast Inc., a non-profit corporation created by the Legislature in 2013, will help the eight Panhandle counties most economically impacted by the spill. It is expected to award 75 percent of the economic-damages money over 30 years for recovery efforts, while the Legislature will distribute the rest. Under the agreement, Florida will receive an initial payment of $400 million next year, with subsequent disbursements of about $100 million annually through 2033.