White House official lends ear to St. Pete stakeholders affected by oil
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08/06/10 Kate Bradshaw
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The well may be staunched, the oil might be dissipating, BP CEO Tony Hayward may be headed out the door, but for gulf states, the Gulf oil saga that has sucked up the summer is far from over. Today White House Environmental Advisor Carol Browner was in St. Petersburg to hear from stakeholders on the disaster’s ripple effect on the Tampa Bay area. She said the disaster’s detrimental impact on areas that didn’t even get oil is not lost on the Obama administration.

"We're not going anywhere. We want to continue to work with people. We want to continue to make information available, as it becomes available to us. Particularly as a Floridian, I do recognize and the President recognizes that just because there wasn't oil somewhere, doesn't mean impacts aren't being felt in terms of the local economy and tourism."

She added that the oil disaster is another reminder that now’s the time to start taking clean energy seriously.

"This does have to sit within the broader debate we need to have in this country about what is our energy future, why aren't we taking the steps to require the use of renewables, to require better battery technology, so that we can lead the world in creating clean energy jobs here in the United States."

While participants in today’s round table discussion – including political leaders and tourism officials to scientists and environmental activists – agreed, many stressed what needs to be done in the short term. St. Petersburg Mayor Bill Foster said Tampa Bay has gotten the shaft when it comes to advertising dollars to trumpet the cleanliness of Pinellas Beaches.

"We're kind of the forgotten children down here. And the businesses have been ignored because they don't have the oil problem, it's the oil perception problem that's keeping people away."

Perception has had a two-fold effect on local seafood restaurants. Patricia Hubbard is CFO of an enterprise that includes Hubbard’s Marina and the Friendly Fisherman in Madeira Beach. She said business in July dropped twenty percent over last year, a year that already saw low revenues due to the recession.

"We didn't feel anything economically, at first. We felt rage, very angry, and then, very, very scared. Through June and then definitely through July, we saw a fall off of tourism. Then the second effect, because we have a local seafood restaurant, we ran into folks' opposition to eating seafood. The fear, the perception of contamination. Eating shrimp, oysters, fish, from the Gulf of Mexico. It has hurt us dramatically."

Hubbard said she has filed a claim to recover lost revenues from BP for June, and will file one for July. But the claims process hasn’t been easy for those in Pinellas feeling the strain due to oil. Tradewinds Chief Operating Officer Keith Overton said that the St. Pete Beach resort has lost $1.7 million since Deepwater Horizon exploded. He added that, to date, he’s only heard of one or two large claims in Florida that have gotten paid.

"We have businesses that aren't getting paid in the claims process. All of that will be for nothing, if they don't survive. If they go out of business, then none of this matters if we can't get the money paid to them, timely. The biggest issue with getting it paid is, their argument becomes, how long will the effects be? Nobody knows. So, BP is apprehensive about paying beyond 2 or 3 years, and the industry feels that we should be paid for claims that go on longer than that. If we continue to argue about it, and no emergency funds or supplemental funds make it to the businesses that don't have cash flow, then the argument continues on and businesses fail along the way. And we look back and go, what happened to tourism?"

Browner insisted that the Obama Administration would make BP pay. But while BP was the clear super-villain to those whose concerns were primarily economic, the scientific and environmental communities weren’t happy with the White House. Frank Jackalone is Florida Staff Director for the Sierra Club. He said the federal government’s announcement that most of the leaked oil is gone was misleading.

"The administration has gone a little too far, in saying that most of the oil is gone. They really don't know that. Independent scientists jumped all over the report that they released on Tuesday, saying, "How could you possibly come up with this report in such a short period of time?" And most of the data was not released."

Browner said the assertion was made with what the administration thought was the best information at the time.

"If we had a hundred scientists in this room, we'd have a hundred points of view in this room. What the government attempted to do was take all of the information we had about what had happened, analyze it, send it to scientists outside of the government, ask them to analyze it, and then make it available."

USF Marine Science Dean Bill Hogarth said government agencies have been less than helpful in the wake of the disaster, and even scoffed at his research team when they said there were gigantic underwater plumes, something that’s been overwhelmingly confirmed.

"I got lambasted by a coast guard and more, who said there was some surface oil. I mean, we got treated very badly."

Hogarth said USF has also had to invest $500,000 of its own money to research the effects of oil in the Gulf. Browner said such research is essential, but maintained that scientists will always disagree. Meanwhile, the USF research vessel Weatherbird II is scheduled to leave this hour on a ten-day research mission to study the effects of subsurface oil. Kendra Daly, is a biological oceanographer at USF. She said the mission of the trip is all-encompassing.

"They will be going up into the Northern Gulf of Mexico to investigate the impact of BP oil and dispersants on the marine ecosystem. We will be comparing those results with observations and measurements obtained on earlier cruises that were in that area, as well as other measurements that were taken on the West Florida shelf at a non-oil impacted region."

Daly added that the research team will study the effects of oil at all levels of the food chain. Asked earlier, Obama Environmental Advisor Carol Browner did not comment on how a cleanup of subsurface oil would be executed.

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