Two years ago the company at the center of the Deepwater Horizon disaster, BP, agreed to put up $1 billion to pay for environmental restoration projects in the Gulf Coast states hit by the 2010 oil spill. The "early restoration" funding was to help those states get a quick start on repairing the damage done, rather than waiting years for a trial to sort out who would pay for that.
Of that $1 billion, $100 million is supposed to go to Florida alone. But so far, only about one-tenth of that has been spent.
What's taking so long? According to former Florida Department of Environmental Protection Secretary Mimi Drew, what's slowing everything down is BP.
Drew, who represents Florida on the Gulf Coast Ecosystem Restoration Task Force, explained that the BP money being spent on the early restoration projects is considered " a down payment against their final liability."
So before the first dollar gets spent, the states have to negotiate with BP over how much credit each project contributes toward BP's final bill.
"We can't use a dollar-for-dollar credit," she said. "It's a long, complex process."
That's why the first set of projects did not get a green light until April, she said. A second set won approval in December.
A BP spokesman, Craig Savage, said the company works with the federal and state trustees to evaluate projects, and "the trustees determine when and how to present these to the public for review and comment."
The disaster, which began in April 2010 with an offshore rig explosion that killed 11 people, is now the subject of a long-running trial in New Orleans.
Escambia County Commissioner Grover Robinson IV has heard grumbling from across the Gulf Coast about how long the funding is taking, but he understands it. Part of it is the complexity of the negotiations, he said, where "you may spend $1 and BP gets credit for up to $5."
The other part is the novelty of the whole setup, given the magnitude of the spill.
"Every time we do something like this, it's like it's the first time it's ever been done," he said. "We've urged all the counties to have patience with the process."
Once the trial in New Orleans ends, Robinson predicted, the process should speed up because then BP will no longer be part of the negotiations.
Escambia was the Florida county hardest hit by the oil washing ashore nearly three years ago. So far it has been the big winner from the fund, netting two new boat ramps, two repaired boat ramps and an 8-mile-long dune restoration project. Total cost: $5.7 million.
The next set of projects planned for Florida, totaling $6.3 million, will have a broader focus. They aim to restore sea turtle and bird nesting habitat on beaches in Escambia, Santa Rosa, Okaloosa, Walton, Bay, Gulf and Franklin counties. The reason those beaches need habitat restoration: They were damaged by BP-hired crews cleaning up oil.
Craig Pittman can be reached at [email protected]