Final Deepwater Horizon settlement will mean less money for the RESTORE Act

Planning continuing for state and local initiatives, but receipt of funding will be spread over 16 years

Coastal Initiatives Manager addresses the Sarasota County Commission. File photo
Coastal Initiatives Manager addresses the Sarasota County Commission. File photo

As Sarasota County’s coastal initiatives manager put it this week, it is a classic case of “Let me tell you the good news and the bad news.”

Providing an update on the RESTORE Act to the Sarasota and Charlotte County commissions during their Oct. 19 joint meeting in Port Charlotte, Laird Wreford explained, “The biggest development in the past year … was the accomplishment of the BP settlement.”

That had been long awaited, Wreford continued, referring to the federal government’s efforts to hold British Petroleum accountable for the environmental and economic damage that resulted from the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil rig explosion and resulting pollution in the Gulf of Mexico.

The bad news, Wreford continued, was in the details of the deal between BP and the federal government.

“The total settlement was an absolute landmark, record-breaking settlement for environmental penalties of $20.8 billion,” he said, but only about one-quarter of that was attributed to the company’s violation of the Clean Water Act, and that is the only money that goes into the RESTORE Act.

Prior to the release of the final details, he pointed out, communities had expected close to the full $20.8 billion would end up in the RESTORE Act’s distribution system. Instead, the funds will be about $5.5 billion. Yet another facet of the deal that had not been anticipated, he indicated, was that “a clean cool 20% [of that amount] is skimmed right off the top.” That is a result of the Exxon Valdez disaster in Alaska in 1989, in which a rupture of the vessel’s hull resulted in the release of 11 million gallons of oil. That fouled more than 1,000 miles of coastline and killed hundreds of thousands of animals.

The 20% went into the Oil Spill Liability Trust Fund. Therefore, Wreford explained to the commissioners, the total amount of money left for the RESTORE Act will be about $4.4 billion.

“It’s ‘found money,’” he pointed out, which “can be used for very, very valuable environmental projects.”

Nonetheless, he noted, it is “set up to be paid over time”: 16 years. No specific amounts were tied to exact timelines, he told the commissioners. That “makes it very challenging,” he said, to decide on how the money should be spent.

As they are received, the funds are being divided into three “pots,” he noted: one for local initiatives in the affected counties, one for federal purposes and the final one for each state to divvy up as it sees fit.

Coastal Initiatives Manager Laird Wreford used this graphic on Oct. 19 to explain how the RESTORE Act funds are being divvied up. Image courtesy Sarasota County
Coastal Initiatives Manager Laird Wreford used this graphic on Oct. 19 to explain how the RESTORE Act funds are being divvied up. Image courtesy Sarasota County

Each of the 23 Florida counties eligible for RESTORE money has to create what is called a Multi Year Implementation Plan, or MYIP, Wreford said, with an aside about the fact there are “lots and lots of acronyms in government.”

Each of the MYIPs has to be submitted to the U.S. Treasury Department, he continued. After officials at that level have given their approval, then the county has to submit an application to the department to access the county’s portion of the funds.

To make use of the approximately $1.2 million Sarasota County already has received through the earlier settlement with BP’s subcontractors, Wreford said, the County Commission approved plans for improvements to its Ted Sperling Park on South Lido Key. That ties in City of Sarasota and county interests by focusing on the creation of a 0.9-mile, multi-use trail, he added. County staff is on the verge of advertising the project for the required 45-day comment period, he noted. Afterward, it hopes to receive approval from the Treasury Department, he said, at which time it will submit its application for the money.

Sarasota County is expected to receive $5.5 million directly from the BP settlement, Wreford told the commissioners in August.

In regard to the state “pot” of RESTORE funds: An organization called the Gulf Consortium has a representative from each of the 23 Florida counties that suffered negative consequences as a result of the 2010 Deepwater Horizon event, he said. Commissioner Charles Hines represents Sarasota County in that group, while Commissioner Chris Constance is Charlotte County’s delegate.

After considerable discussion, Wreford said, the Consortium members decided to divvy up the state “pot” equally among all 23 counties. That means each will end up with about $12.8 million for its “best and highest-use projects.”

A 2007 photo shows the Dona Bay Estuary. Photo courtesy Sarasota County
A 2007 photo shows the Dona Bay Estuary. Photo courtesy Sarasota County

The counties recently were asked to submit their initial proposals, he continued. The Sarasota County Commission settled on the Dona Bay Restoration Project, “which involves widespread regional benefits,” crossing county and regional lines, he added.

However, because of the 16-year time frame in which the BP funds will come into the RESTORE Act pots, Wreford said, staff also is exploring other potential uses of the money.

A consulting firm working with the consortium will be visiting each county to help fine-tune the proposals, he continued. Sarasota County’s meeting is set for Nov. 1; Hines will participate in it along with staff.

Charlotte County’s progress

Mindy Collier. Photo from LinkedIn
Mindy Collier. Photo from LinkedIn

After Wreford completed his remarks, Mindy Collier, the RESTORE Act coordinator for Charlotte County, provided an update on the projects the commissioners have focused on there.

An 11-member community advisory board was appointed to select initiatives, she explained. As a result, it submitted its MYIP proposals to the Treasury Department in January and won approval for them in March. “We had a very quick turnaround.”

The funds Charlotte County received through the subcontractor settlements totaled about $726,000, she said, so the county divided that among three projects: a septic tank to sewer system plan; a bay scallop restoration initiative; and a boardwalk project.

Treasury staff visited the county in July, Collier continued, interviewing staff and examining details of the proposals. As a result, Charlotte County received notice on Sept. 26 that it could proceed with the septic-to-sewer project. The commission is scheduled to give its final, formal approval to that initiative on Nov. 8, she added.

Charlotte County’s direct funds from BP, she said, will total about $4.8 million.

Finally, Collier reported that the representatives of the consortium’s consulting firm are scheduled to meet with staff and Commissioner Constance on Nov. 3.

At the conclusion of her presentation, Constance told the commissioners he had just whispered to Hines, “‘Don’t upset them’” — referring to the consultants — “because I see them two days after he does.”