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Officials collect ideas on how to spend oil spill money

Published Mar. 14, 2013

ST. PETERSBURG — In New Orleans, a federal trial has been grinding away, aimed at deciding who caused the 2010 Deepwater Horizon disaster and how much those responsible should pay in fines.

Meanwhile, a cavalcade of state and federal officials are focusing on what to do with those multibillion-dollar fines.

The Gulf Coast Ecosystem Restoration Council is in charge of planning the best use of any fines paid by BP and other players involved in the disaster that killed 11 oil rig workers and spilled more than 4 million barrels of oil in the Gulf of Mexico. A new federal law says 80 percent of those fines must be spent restoring the gulf coast.

The council has been holding public hearings across the gulf in recent months. Its final session, held at the Fish and Wildlife Research Institute in St. Petersburg on Wednesday night, drew 130 people with strong opinions on how best to spend that money in Florida — and not just in the eight counties where the beaches were hit by oil.

The council will put forward a draft plan in the spring, take public comment, then produce its final version by July 6, said Justin Ehrenwerth of the U.S. Department of Commerce, which is leading the council effort.

About 40 people spoke. Their ideas ranged from trying to counteract the erosion eating away at Egmont Key to buying an island near the mouth of Tampa Bay to doing a comprehensive survey of how many fish remain offshore

"We killed a lot of fish in the Gulf of Mexico," said Clearwater charter boat captain Mike Colby.

Holly Greening, executive director of the Tampa Bay Estuary Program, said her organization had begun collaborating last fall with other estuary programs all along the Florida coast — from the Big Bend area down to the Everglades — to pull together a comprehensive list of more than 100 projects. Their list was approved last week by all of the elected officials who sit on the various estuary groups, she said.

Greening said their list ranged from beefing up wildlife habitat around coastal springs to cleaning up polluted stormwater runoff in Gulfport to converting shell-mining ponds in Hillsborough and Manatee counties into restored marshes.

Some of the speakers had less sweeping proposals — for instance, the one that would help one particular wading bird breed in peace. To persuade the panel to support that one, Jeanne Dubi of the Sarasota Audubon Society suggested they put themselves in the place of the birds.

"You're a snowy plover and you are compelled to breed on the beaches of Siesta Key," she said. "You're trying to nest on the beach and you've got 300,000 people on the beach . . . Imagine all those feet coming at you."

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