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Tampa to receive $27 million in settlement over Deepwater Horizon oil spill

“There were conven-tions that were canceled. There were visitors who didn’t come. There were hotels that were left unfilled.”
Mayor Bob Buckhorn
“There were conven-tions that were canceled. There were visitors who didn’t come. There were hotels that were left unfilled.” Mayor Bob Buckhorn
Published Jul. 3, 2015

TAMPA — The city of Tampa will receive $27.4 million — less than half of what it wanted — in a settlement of its claims with oil giant BP over lost taxes and other economic damages from the Deepwater Horizon oil spill.

It is the most any Florida city will receive from the BP settlement, Mayor Bob Buckhorn said Thursday.

"We got that because we led on this issue," Buckhorn said. "There were conventions that were canceled. There were visitors who didn't come. There were hotels that were left unfilled. … Those economic damages were very, very real."

After paying Tampa attorney Steve Yerrid's 25 percent fee and litigation costs of around $200,000, the net amount coming to City Hall will be about $20 million.

Dunedin, Gulfport, St. Petersburg and nearly all of the area's beach cities and towns also filed claims seeking damages, as did the Pinellas and Pasco County governments. Officials there said they could not comment on the settlement terms, citing a confidentiality agreement tied to the litigation.

Hillsborough County, which said it had nearly $43 million in losses, will get a settlement that's about a million dollars more than Tampa's, said Yerrid, who did not represent the county. That would be around $28 million.

Hernando administrator Len Sossamon estimates his county will receive between $3.5 million and $7 million over several years. The county already has allocated the first $600,000 to several local projects, including park improvements and enhancements to a popular fishing area near Bayport.

As the Deepwater Horizon oil well gushed uncapped for months in 2010, experts and news commentators speculated about whether oil would be spread by currents looping around the Gulf of Mexico.

It did.

University of South Florida researchers have found small sandy patties on at least one Pinellas County beach that were traced to the Deepwater Horizon spill through the chemical signature of the dispersant BP used to break up the spill.

But even before that, images of the oil and gulf coast damage discouraged tourism and depressed business in Tampa generally, local officials contend.

Looking for economic effects of the spill, forensic accountants working for Yerrid found a measurable drop in more than a dozen sources of City Hall revenue, from taxes on property, sales, utilities and communications services to revenues from the street car, parking and golf courses.

Tampa's claim also included damages city officials expect to sustain in the future, such as lost business from longtime visitors who avoided the bay area during the spill, found new places to vacation and never returned.

"You talk to the fishermen and the crabbers and all the people who live along the beach, and they'll tell you what kind of fish they're seeing," Yerrid said. "Lesions. Shrimp that are deformed. Seafood that appears to be suspect. Less of a problem now than initially."

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City Hall could get the money within 90 days. Buckhorn said it will not be included in the 2016 budget he'll propose later this month and probably will be used for "legacy projects," not to patch potholes.

"I want this settlement to have generational impact," he said.

Buckhorn is working on at least three such projects for which he needs money to make a reality. One is a sweeping redevelopment of Julian B. Lane Riverfront Park. There, the city needs $20 million or more to pay for a community center, boathouse, bigger playground and athletic fields, splash play area and other upgrades.

"That thought has crossed my mind," Buckhorn said when asked whether Riverfront Park could be one of the legacy projects to benefit from the settlement. "I'm not saying that's what we will do, but certainly that is the type and scale of project that I think would be meaningful for decades."

Buckhorn also needs millions of dollars for the West River redevelopment, which entails replacing the World War II-era North Boulevard Homes public housing complex with a walkable, mixed-income neighborhood that's oriented toward the Hillsborough River. In West River, local money could be leveraged to win millions more in federal grants.

Another legacy project for Buckhorn could be the idea of taking highly treated reclaimed water that is now dumped into Tampa Bay, treating it a bit more and putting it in the Tampa Bypass Canal, one of the sources of Tampa's drinking water. Buckhorn asked the Legislature for $2.5 million this year to pay for a pilot project and study of the idea, but lawmakers did not appropriate the money.

"There may be others," he said, "but certainly those are three that would have a really significant impact moving forward."

Times staff writers Barbara Behrendt, C.T. Bowen, Steve Contorno and Tony Marrero contributed to this report.