1. News

Four Pinellas beach cities sue BP for gulf oil spill

PINELLAS BEACHES — Four Pinellas County beach cities are seeking more than $12 million in damages from BP for lost tax revenue and costs associated with the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill.

So far, BP says it has paid more than $83 million to Florida and $1.38 billion to cities and towns along the Gulf of Mexico.

The spill occurred on April 20, 2010 when the Deepwater Horizon oil rig exploded and for more than 85 days spewed an estimated 172 million gallons of crude oil into the Gulf of Mexico.

St. Pete Beach, Treasure Island, Madeira Beach and Indian Rocks Beach have filed claims against BP, seeking millions in economic damages. None of the cities actually had any oil reach its shores and officials were reluctant to give specifics on exactly how the spill resulted in the loss of revenue.

Other beach communities declined to pursue similar claims, either because they felt they were not damaged or that it would be too difficult or time-consuming to prove those damages.

"Initially I faced skepticism when I first broached the topic of filing a claim for my municipal clients," said Maura Kiefer, city attorney for both Treasure Island and Indian Rocks Beach.

That quickly changed when economic studies showed that both cities suffered millions of dollars in losses incurred as a result of the oil spill. In fact, a study conducted for the Pinellas Convention Visitors Bureau by economist Dr. Walter Klages of Research Data Services estimated the overall business community lost a whopping $87 million, according to St. Pete Beach City Manager Mike Bonfield.

Attorneys representing St. Pete Beach estimate that the city government's share of that impact is about $2.5 million for direct losses in property and other taxes and fees.

The city's claim includes another $3.9 million for indirect losses including increased utility and other fees and personnel cutbacks.

The city hopes to get at least $6.4 million from BP, Bonfield said.

Last month, Indian Rocks Beach City Manager Chuck Coward acknowledged that before seeing the study's figures, he doubted that his city incurred any damages.

"Clearly it was the responsible thing for the municipalities to have at least looked into the existence of a claim and to file it in a timely matter," Kiefer said.

Other Pinellas County cities seeking damages from BP include Gulfport, St. Petersburg and Clearwater, according to Bonfield. Pinellas County is also seeking damages.

Neighboring Tampa is seeking more than $50 million to cover past and future tourism, tax revenue and business losses.

It is too late for other Pinellas beach communities to file similar claims. The deadline, imposed under the federal Oil Pollution Act of 1990 was Jan. 19. The act sets the guidelines for businesses and municipalities to seek damages in the event of oil spills.

Bonfield and Keifer said municipalities are prevented by the law from joining in the class action claims process set up for businesses and individuals. Instead, they must pursue individual claims and quantify the damages they are seeking.

The four beach cities have hired outside attorneys to handle the claims. All the cases are on contingency and attorneys will be paid only in the event of settlement or court award.

Kiefer said she negotiated a sliding scale with the attorneys representing her two cities, beginning at 20 percent of any recovery plus costs. The more the attorneys win for the cities, the more that they will earn.

The attorneys have hired experts, including forensic economists, to calculate losses incurred.

In Madeira Beach, attorneys there told commissioners last month that they expect that city to qualify for at least $2.5 million in damages. Indian Rocks Beach is hoping to get nearly $4 million from BP. Treasure Island is keeping mum about how big a claim it is seeking, Keifer said.