When the Deepwater Horizon oil rig spilled roughly 200 million gallons of crude oil in 2010, none of it ever washed up on the shores of Pinellas County.
However, leery tourists stayed away in droves.
That has led the cities of Clearwater and Dunedin to sue the oil giant BP over tens of millions of dollars in lost tax revenues. They join other local governments such as Tampa and Hillsborough County that are also suing BP.
The lawsuits from Clearwater and Dunedin were two of nearly 60 suits that South Carolina-based law firm Motley Rice filed Friday in U.S. District Court in Louisiana. The North Pinellas cities barely made a deadline, filing just before the third anniversary of the oil spill. Friday was the last day they could file the lawsuits under the statute of limitations, said Dunedin city attorney Tom Trask.
The cities claim they suffered millions in losses — from hotel, gas, sales and other tax and fee receipts — as a result of the spill. While no oil washed into the Tampa Bay area, the cities say visitors were scared away while the well gushed uncapped for months, prompting experts to speculate about whether currents looping around the Gulf of Mexico would spread the crude.
"It was the fear factor," said lawyer Lou Kwall, who filed suit on behalf of Clearwater. "We didn't have any oil here, but everybody got scared to come here. We have a tremendous number of German and English tourists, and it wasn't really until this year that we started to get them back."
BP didn't respond to earlier settlement demands from the cities. Dunedin was seeking more than $8.8 million that accountants estimate it lost because of the oil spill. Clearwater was seeking more than $20 million.
Clearwater's lawsuit names the companies BP, Halliburton and Transocean as defendants. The lawsuit notes that Clearwater "boasts world-renowned white sand beaches" and adds that "tourism is a primary economic driver for the city."
Dunedin's lawsuit calls the city a hub for nature, wildlife and water enthusiasts. Dunedin is also home to fishing equipment and recreational boat retailers, seafood restaurateurs and other merchants whose sales dipped because of leery customers, the lawsuit says.
The Oil Pollution Act of 1990 allows governments to be reimbursed for net lost revenue from taxes, fees or other sources that officials couldn't collect and couldn't mitigate as a direct result of a spill.