TALLAHASSEE — Nearly a year after the biggest oil spill in the nation’s history began spewing into the Gulf of Mexico, some Florida lawmakers say not enough is being done in the state Capitol to repair the damage – both economic and ecological – and to prevent a future disaster.
Only a few bills addressing the BP oil spill were even introduced this session. Of those, only one has been voted on in either chamber, and it would only affect the eight Panhandle counties hardest hit by the spill.
Southwest Floridians whose businesses and livelihoods were damaged by the spill are getting scant attention in Tallahassee.
“Southwest Florida wasn’t hurt by anything biological, but maybe they were hurt perception-wise,” said Rep. Trudi Williams, R-Fort Myers, who chairs the House agriculture and natural resources committee. “How do you put a price on perception? I guess you have to go back and find out like two years ago how much tourism there was. But then again, we don’t have a lot of tourism because the price of gas is so high, people are out of jobs.
“There are too many moving factors.”
Starting Tuesday, Gov. Rick Scott is embarking on a two-day tour of Northwest Florida to showcase area beaches and promote local seafood.
At the same time, some are criticizing Scott for failing to join a lawsuit against Transocean, the owner of the Deepwater Horizon oil rig that exploded April 20, 2010, killing 11 people and triggering the spill. The deadline to join the lawsuit, which some believe could be worth hundreds of millions of dollars, if not a billion, is Wednesday, the one-year anniversary of the spill.
Scott, who recently accepted a $30 million marketing grant from BP to help mitigate the effects to Florida’s tourism industry in the Panhandle, has repeatedly said he would like to avoid litigation.
“We have an opportunity to bring in a substantial amount of money that could make everybody whole, or close to it,” said Rep. Rick Kriseman, D-St. Petersburg, who questioned Scott’s loyalties during a recent press conference.
“Florida should join the lawsuit because then Florida could help set the terms (of the) settlement,” said Eric Draper, executive director of Audubon of Florida, a nonprofit environmental conservation organization.
Second of a series of reports about this week’s first anniversary of the Gulf oil spill.
Sen. Don Gaetz, a Panhandle Republican, is sponsor of Senate Bill 248, the oil spill recovery act, which passed the Senate with unanimous approval in mid-March. It would require that three-fourths of any fine or settlement money coming to the state from BP be used to assist eight Panhandle counties “disproportionately affected” by the spill. It also includes a $10 million appropriation to Florida’s Great Northwest, a private economic development corporation in Destin.
A similar bill in the House recently passed through the Economic Affairs Committee with unanimous approval.
When other parts of Florida have faced disasters, Gaetz said it is common for the state as a whole to offer a hand up. The Florida Chamber of Commerce is supportive of his legislation.
“We want to be an earner for the rest of the state, including Naples,” Gaetz said. “If this bill passes, it will allow us to diversify our economy to recover economically, and to be able to be an earner for Naples and for everybody else in this state.”
Gaetz also sent resolutions to Congress, urging Washington, D.C., lawmakers to support tax relief for people and businesses hurt by the spill, support unemployment benefits for people who lost their jobs because of it, and dedicate penalty money for environmental and economic recovery.
But Gaetz isn’t satisfied with the response to the spill in Tallahassee.
“No,” he said. “Not enough has been done.”
Kriseman introduced a bill again this year calling for an amendment to the Florida constitution prohibiting oil exploration, drilling or extraction in Florida waters. He said his bill was “just absolutely ignored,” as it was during last year’s special session.
Although oil drilling already is prohibited in state waters, with gas prices on the rise, Kriseman believes it is just a matter of time before his Republican colleagues make a case for drilling off Florida’s coast.
“They’re smart enough to realize they shouldn’t do it this year, within a year of the explosion,” he said. “That would be bad politics.”
While many environmental groups are supportive of amending the state’s constitution, Draper said that’s not where he’s focusing his efforts. Instead, environmental groups are eyeing BP money they expect the state to receive as part of Natural Resource Damage Assessment and Clean Water Act penalties, Draper said.
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To read more about local BP oil claims as of mid-April, click on documents below.
“We’d like to see BP’s, some of the penalty funds, used to buy habitat for shorebirds, private lands that we can then turn into wildlife refuges, and to better manage the wildlife refuges we have right now, and to restore habitat that has already been damaged by development or by other things,” Draper said.
During the past year, the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services has tested 230 seafood samples in Florida waters. About 11 percent were found with detectable levels of contaminants, but none with more than 1/1,000th of the FDA’s level of concern, according to agricultural Commissioner Adam Putnam.
The spill put a significant dent in Florida’s $247 million aquaculture industry, and has particularly hurt Florida fishermen and working waterfronts, Putnam said. At a minimum, the seafood industry has suffered a continuous 25 percent loss, according to Putnam’s office.
Utilizing $20 million in BP dollars, the Department of Agriculture will be doing more testing and launching a national marketing campaign to promote Florida.
“There’s a lot of reason for people to continue to add seafood back to their diet, for restaurants to put it back on their menu, and for people to feel safe doing that,” Putnam said. “Unfortunately, and the reason why we also negotiated a settlement with BP for marketing dollars, is that that message is not out there, and public confidence continues to be at a very low level, particularly among Floridians.”