Castor - new bill would designate 80 percent of BP fine money for Gulf states

11/22/10 Kate Bradshaw
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With the recent election, Black Friday, and body scans dominating the public sphere, it may be easy to forget that the Gulf coast is still hurting from the BP oil disaster. One Tampa member of Congress has filed a bill that would tackle region’s oil disaster troubles in a range of ways.

The millions of gallons of oil that shot out of the sea floor for months are out of sight, out of mind for many. But while the collective consciousness has moved on from the BP oil disaster, Florida’s $65 billion-a-year tourism industry is still in pain.

"Florida's tourism and our brand has been damaged significantly."

Keith Overton is chief operating officer at the Tradewinds on St. Pete Beach. He says the resort has already lost $1.2 million in the wake of the disaster, which, when looked at in a statewide context, is pretty alarming.

"Now you extrapolate that out over the impacts for the years to come and then you multiply times the 35,000 rooms in Pinellas County, the 76,000 rooms in the Panhandle, the 40,000 rooms in Sarasota/Bradenton."

Overton adds, navigating the claims process, which uses BP money to compensate those whose livelihoods were deeply impacted by the disaster, has been like pulling teeth.

"What's strange about it is you talk to the Gulf Coast Claims facility and they say 'oh, we're not paying claims just yet in that region or that economic area that's been affected.' Yet, a property that adjoins our property has been paid $317,000 and we've been paid nothing."

Right now, there’s no guarantee that the fines BP will pay – a sum expected to range between $5 billion and $20 billion – will go primarily to Gulf States. US Representative Kathy Castor says under the Clean Water Act, the money would go into an oil spill trust fund, and get disbursed from there. Castor says she hopes to change that with a bill she filed last week.

"This will be a very substantial and robust fund for economic recovery in the Gulf of Mexico."

The Gulf of Mexico Economic and Environmental Recovery Act would require 80 percent of the money BP pays in fines to go directly to Gulf States. Each state would come up with its own recovery plan, and each plan would include scientific research, recovery efforts, and marketing campaigns.

"What the Recovery Act will do will provide most of that money to the states to come up with comprehensive recovery plans, environmental and economic."

Some BP money has already funded Gulf research. A consortium of Florida Universities and environmental research institutions received $10 million from BP, which Castor says is small potatoes compared to the volume of research that’s still needed on the gusher’s impacts on the gulf.

"We're going to need very substantial funds from this point forward to do the types of environmental restoration and scientific research that will have to be done over the next decade."

USF Marine Science professor Bob Weisberg says the funding will help scientists better understand the workings of the Gulf.

"This bill, if it passes, will provide that long-term funding necessary to finally understand the workings of this system so that we can deal with our fisheries resources, we can understand red tide."

He says this translates quite directly to the Florida experience.

"There are very few fishes that we like to put on a sandwich that grow up in the estuaries themselves. They live in the estuaries but they are actually born elsewhere. And so to understand our fisheries resources we have to understand all of these inter-connections between the estuary, the coastal ocean, which is just offshore of the estuary, and the deep ocean which is a hundred miles or so farther offshore."

Michael Stephens, general counsel and secretary for Bama Sea Products, says the Gulf seafood industry is still grappling with the perception that its product has been contaminated. He says the research and marketing dollars this bill provides could help offset the storm of bad PR the oil disaster unleashed on the gulf seafood industry.

"That's what this bill does is if it helps to take this information that the professor and that other organizations are producing and give that to consumers in a manner where it can change their buying decisions and let them know that this perception issue with Gulf seafood is not founded on science and that Gulf seafood is as safe as it was before this spill."

If passed, the money in this bill would be separate from the $20 billion trust fund President Obama made BP set aside earlier this year. Castor says she hopes that money would go expressly to business claims like that of Tradewinds executive Overton. The bill does not have a Senate cosponsor yet. Castor, a Democrat, says despite the partisan bickering that’s come to define Washington, she doesn’t think the GOP will try to block the bill.

"I've already talked with Congressman Bill Young, Congressman Vern Buchanan, I anticipate in the coming session we will join together in bipartisan legislation. We're going to put together a group of all Gulf Coast legislators no matter what their political party is and fight for these funds that rightfully should go to Gulf coast communities."

Meanwhile, a presidential oil spill panel report out today says BP’s efforts to cap the well were hampered by the oil giant’s underestimates of the gusher. It also says the government and BP were not prepared to deal with the spill, and that, had it not been for a scientist with a cell phone camera, the well cap may not have been successfully installed.

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