Tarpon's decision not to file oil spill claim is questioned

Rig man William May, of Tarpon Springs watches a kayaker as she passes the Tarpon Springs Sponge Docks, background. City officials didn’t file a claim for damages with BP over the 2010 oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, saying they had no evidence that it harmed the Sponge Docks or the city’s tourism business.

DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times (2006)

Rig man William May, of Tarpon Springs watches a kayaker as she passes the Tarpon Springs Sponge Docks, background. City officials didn’t file a claim for damages with BP over the 2010 oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, saying they had no evidence that it harmed the Sponge Docks or the city’s tourism business.

TARPON SPRINGS — From Tampa and Dunedin to Panama City and Key West, cities along Florida's west coast have filed claims against BP for lost tourism and other revenue, seeking damages as a result of an oil rig explosion that sullied the Gulf of Mexico and killed 11 workers in 2010.

But Tarpon Springs, despite an economy based on tourism, fishing and sponge diving, did not seek damages.

Why? According to Tarpon Springs leaders, there wasn't any evidence the spill harmed the city.

"We just looked at the numbers and we couldn't prove we'd lost anything," City Manager Mark LeCouris said, adding the money should go to business owners and other cities that could document real losses. "In fact, in some areas, our revenue went up."

LeCouris said he consulted with City Attorney Jim Yacavone and Finance Director Arie Walker before reaching a decision. The deadline under the Oil Pollution Act for cities to file a claim was in April, three years after the spill that sent 200 million gallons of crude oil gushing into the Gulf of Mexico.

By some accounts, many of the cities going after BP are merely throwing putty at a wall to see if it sticks. Pinellas County never saw oil on its shores and the exact loss in tourism and other revenue is hard to prove.

But Tarpon Springs' decision not to seek damages baffles some attorneys and residents who say a claim would have risked nothing, since an attorney would have earned only a percentage of the winnings.

A U.S. Travel Association analysis after the spill found indicators of a double-digit decline in tourists' plans to visit the gulf region generally, and the cities of Florida's west coast specifically.

Attorney Steve Yerrid, who is representing the city of Tampa in its lawsuit against BP, said Tarpon Springs may have made a mistake. Even if the city coffers grew after the spill, he argued, revenue may have increased more if the spill had not occurred.

Even BP calls Tampa Bay an "affected area," he added. And lost money from tourism and other water-based industries, from fishing to sponge diving, has a demonstrable and long-term impact.

For example, the hit to tourism also hurt collections of the Penny for Pinellas sales tax, a countywide one-cent sales tax that pays for local government infrastructure projects.

That tax is how Tarpon Springs is financing its $1.3 million Sponge Docks upgrade, which will be built in stages due to financial issues.

"Now, instead of others paying, the city is going to have to wait longer for the Sponge Docks or they'll have to foot more of the bill themselves," Yerrid said. "Tarpon Springs won't see a dime for what BP did, and that's not how things should turn out."

Claim documents submitted by Dunedin list a number of other revenue losses, ranging from lost property values to lost electric franchise fees. The claim does not provide any numbers or make any attempt to verify the losses.

Dunedin asked for $8.8 million in damages and Clearwater asked for $20 million. Settlements haven't been reached in either case.

BP rejected Tampa's $60 million claim, which is why Yerrid is now suing on Tampa's behalf.

Several Tarpon Springs residents who learned about claims from surrounding cities emailed LeCouris and Mayor David Archie urging them to try and recoup damages.

That includes resident Joseph Rowe, who said he's glad city leaders don't want to file a frivolous claim, but he believes it's a "no-brainer" that Tarpon Springs suffered real damages.

"They've got to look at the big picture," he said. "I hate to see Tarpon miss such an opportunity to recoup its losses."

Brittany Alana Davis can be contacted at bdavis@tampabay.com or (850) 323-0353. To write a letter to the editor, go to tampabay.com/letters.

Tarpon's decision not to file oil spill claim is questioned 06/08/13 [Last modified: Friday, June 7, 2013 7:51pm]

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