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Institute scores $4 million in Transocean settlement, but can't spend it on rickety research vessel

The Florida Institute of Oceanography’s biggest research asset, the R/V Bellows, is falling apart.
The Florida Institute of Oceanography’s biggest research asset, the R/V Bellows, is falling apart.
Published Aug. 25, 2015

ST. PETERSBURG — U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson announced Monday that the Florida Institute of Oceanography is getting $4 million to conduct more research on the impact of the 2010 oil spill on the Gulf of Mexico.

But there's a catch.

None of that money, Nelson said, can be used to fix or replace FIO's 45-year-old R/V Bellows, which is the school's biggest research asset. At 71 feet, the ship has served as a workhorse for decades. It averages 100 to 150 days at sea a year and brings in $750,000 from researchers who pay to charter the boat.

It's also falling apart.

The Legislature set aside $6 million to replace it with a new 78-foot ship equipped with cutting-edge technology. But Gov. Rick Scott vetoed that money in June because "there is available funding throughout the state university system that could be used by the institutions desiring to purchase this vessel."

Problems with the vessel are many. The steel hull is corroding. The diesel engines leak oil. Because of its age, replacement parts are hard to find. An assessment done nearly five years ago said the boat should be retired within five years, which means now. To get by, the institute has the hull tested every six months to make sure it's sound.

William Hogarth, who heads up the FIO, promised that the consortium is trying to raise the money for a new ship by asking other universities to pitch in.

"We're working on it," he said.

In the meantime, FIO has a second vessel to use for oil spill research, the 115-foot R/V Weatherbird, Hogarth said. Fortunately, he said, all its equipment was updated last year.

The award money touted Monday by Nelson comes from a court settlement with Transocean, which owned the Deepwater Horizon rig that exploded and sank to the bottom of the gulf, touching off the massive disaster that followed.

The institute is a consortium of a dozen state and private universities and other organizations based in St. Petersburg and headquartered in the marine sciences building at the University of South Florida St. Petersburg. The FIO is likely to get more than $20 million on top of that $4 million, once BP's $18.7 billion settlement deal is approved by a judge, Nelson predicted.

Contact Craig Pittman at craig@tampabay.com. Follow @craigtimes.

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