PENSACOLA, Fla. – More than five years after the Deepwater Horizon oil drilling rig exploded off the Louisiana coast, killing 11 workers and sending more than 134 million gallons of oil into the Gulf of Mexico, a portion of the billions of dollars in settlement money with oil giant BP and others is slowly starting to reach 23 Florida counties.
The counties stretch from Escambia on the western edge of the Panhandle to Monroe County on the southern tip of the Florida peninsula, all economic victims of the worst environmental disaster in U.S. history.
The 23 counties' ideas for spending their oil spill windfalls vary widely. From preserving bird habitat in the Everglades to boat ramps and waterfront parks in the Panhandle, county leaders are in the midst of deciding what to do with their share of a more than $20 billion settlement.
THE FLORIDA PLAYERS
Eight Panhandle counties that saw oil, tar mats and tar balls on their beaches will get a greater share of the money. Those are Escambia, Santa Rosa, Okaloosa, Walton, Bay, Gulf, Franklin and Wakulla. The other 15 counties are: Jefferson, Taylor, Dixie, Levy, Citrus, Hernando, Pasco, Hillsborough, Pinellas, Manatee, Sarasota, Charlotte, Lee, Collier and Monroe.
Environmental groups including Audubon Florida and The Nature Conservancy are monitoring county projects and spearheading others in conjunction with the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation.
Triumph Gulf Coast, a nonprofit organization created to address economic losses sustained in the spill, will use settlement money to help diversify the economy of northwest Florida.
Five Gulf Coast states — Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, Texas and Florida — are sharing in more than $20 billion in funds from oil giants BP, Transocean and Halliburton and others who reached settlements with the state and federal regulators after years of complicated litigation. Most of the money will come from BP and will be paid out over 17 years.
In Florida, Triumph Gulf Coast will oversee about the bulk of a $2 billion between the state and BP for economic damages created by the spill.
The 23 Florida counties will split about $308 million in direct restitution from BP, with 75 percent of that money going to the five Panhandle counties most affected by the spill. The counties already have access to about $45 million in settlement money paid earlier by Transocean.
Most of the 23 Florida counties are in the midst of finalizing plans on how to spend their share of the money.
In Escambia County, which saw the heaviest oil wash ashore, money has already been used to improve a public marina and park, build boat ramps, salvage oyster beds and restore beaches. Grover Robinson, chairman of the Escambia County Commission and head of the Florida's 23-county oil spill consortium, said the county hopes to do projects that improve the region's water quality and ecosystem for future generations.
"We also hope to do things that will help diversify our local economy beyond the tourist sector because we learned during the spill how dependent we are on tourism," he said.
While the counties have not finalized their plans many have indicated priorities.
Hillsborough County commissioners voted to wait at least a year before spending any settlement money. The vote was intended to make sure the money went for the best use rather than filling routine budget gaps. Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn said in July he wants his region's settlement money to have an impact for generations to come.
Monroe County, which covers the Keys, hopes to use some money to help preserve its threatened coral reefs. Another Florida project includes bird habitat preservation in Everglades National Park.
Darryl Boudreau, director of local government relations for The Nature Conservancy in Florida, said he is encouraged by many of the projects being considered by the counties and the work they are putting into the planning process.
"From what I have seen, everyone involved is taking this very seriously," he said. "It is not crystal clear yet how all of the money is going to be handled and there are a lot of competing interests, but we are seeing a commitment to investing in projects that provide long-term benefits for the region."