PANAMA CITY BEACH — Leaders of Florida's 23 Gulf Coast counties said Thursday they want to stick together and fight for their share of a potential $5 billion to $20 billion windfall from fines levied against BP and other companies involved in the massive 2010 oil spill.
Federal officials and the companies are mired in litigation and negotiations to determine the amount of fines for violations of the Clean Water Act. The fine, based on the size of the spill and the extent of each company's negligence, could bring millions to individual Florida counties.
The Florida Association of Counties hopes to organize the eight Florida counties most affected by the spill and 15 counties that had lesser impacts into a consortium that will determine how the money is divided and spent.
The group held a preliminary meeting about the plan on Thursday.
"We have no idea how soon the federal dollars will flow. They could reach a settlement in two weeks or it could take three years," Chris Holley, executive director of the association, told the group.
But Holley said it is crucial for counties to come up with their own formula to distribute the money and their own plans to spend it.
"If the counties don't step up, someone else will take the money," he said.
Alabama, Florida, Louisiana, Mississippi and Texas will share the fine money, with the largest portion of the money going to Louisiana, which had the greatest impact from the spill. Under a proposed distribution system discussed at Thursday's meeting, individual Florida Counties could see anywhere from $2.4 million to $226 million depending on the size of the fine and the extent the county was impacted by the spill.
Escambia County Commissioner Grover Robinson IV said he believes the distribution system makes sense even though his Pensacola Beach district had oil on its beaches and many counties farther east and south did not.
"At the end of the day, if we want to have control over the money we will need to stick together. This is the right thing to do because without the help of other counties to the east, Escambia couldn't have done this," he said.
An estimate distributed Thursday by the Florida Association of Counties showed that under the current proposal, the eight Florida counties with the greatest oil damage could receive anywhere between $8 million and $226 million apiece, depending on the size of the fines. Those eight counties are: Bay, Escambia, Franklin, Gulf, Okaloosa, Santa Rosa, Wakulla and Walton.
Other Gulf Coast counties that will share in a smaller percentage of the fine money are: Charlotte, Citrus, Collier, Dixie, Hernando, Hillsborough, Jefferson, Lee, Levy, Manatee, Monroe, Pasco, Pinellas, Sarasota and Taylor. Those fines could range from $2.4 million to $37 million per county.
The counties are expected to meet again on Sept. 19 to try and finalize a distribution formula.