Florida environmentalists pitch oil spill fine projects

03/14/13 Janelle Irwin
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A committee of government representatives is collecting ideas from gulf coast residents about how to use money recovered from the 2010 Gulf oil disaster. The group was in St. Pete last night where they heard from environmental advocates about projects that could benefit from extra funding. Dave Howard with Friends of Tampa Bay Refuges suggested some of the money be set aside for beach renourishment at Egmont Key off the coast of southern St. Petersburg.

“It used to be over 500 acres; it’s down to 270 acres. It used to have about 180 pairs of birds nesting on it, last year we had 33,000 pairs of birds nesting on it. So, it’s a very critical habitat for the 50 sea turtles that nest there. We also have endangered gopher tortoises that living on that island.”

The federal RESTORE Act sets aside 80% of the money awarded to states affected by the BP oil spill for restoration. The Gulf Coast Ecosystem Restoration Council was formed to oversee how some of those funds are spent. Justin Ehrenworth from the Department of Commerce is on the committee.

“Before RESTORE the funds and the penalties under the Clean Water Act would not necessarily come back to the region where a spill like this took place.”

So far a billion dollars has been awarded to states from fines levied on Transocean which owned the oil rig that exploded in the Gulf of Mexico. A lot more money is expected to come as fines against BP are finalized. More than 50 people from environmental organizations are trying to get a piece of the massive funding pie. Gil McRae, director of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission said the restoration council has already taken a lot of suggestions from environmental groups in all five affected states.

“There’s a lot of habitat restoration efforts. Everything from folks who want to deploy more artificial reef to hold fish to support fishing to restoration of oyster reef, restoration of sea grass beds, restoration of marshes. There’s a lot of economically oriented projects – building things that will support increased visitation to coastal areas and ecotourism. And then there’s a lot of projects focused on fisheries – fisheries monitoring and hatcheries to enhance fisheries because there’s a lot of uncertainty about the long-term effects on fisheries.”

Susie Fox added to the list with a request to purchase some environmentally sensitive land. She is the head of Ana Maria Island Turtle Watch and wants some money set aside to purchase Rattlesnake Key in Terra Ceia Bay at the southern end of the Skyway Bridge. That land is on the Florida Forever list of desired land acquisition, but the fund ran dry.

“This key and the base of the Skyway Bridge and the rest of this area is crucial, sensitive habitat for all wildlife. I speak for the Manatees. I speak for the Red Snapper. I speak for baby Loggerhead Sea Turtles and those pretty, pink Roseate Spoonbills. I speak for me and I speak for 89 of my volunteers that patrol the AMI beaches to protect sea turtle nests. We introduced 13,000 hatchlings from 362 nests last year and if they don’t have good habitat to grow and thrive then protecting them is pointless.”

The Collier County Audubon Society wants to build a reservoir on the Caloosahatchee River. Pete Quasius works with the group and said it’s one of three targeted projects in the area.

“We have a billion-dollar pink shrimp industry which is dependent upon the revitalization of that estuary. We have billion dollar sport fishing industries depending on the Snook and the Tarpon which need [re population] in that area.”

This was the last opportunity for people to speak directly to members of the restoration council but Gil McRae from the Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission said recommendations for projects can still be submitted online.

“DEP has actually set up a website to collect projects. It’s a portal where folks can submit projects – there’s a set form and my understanding is they’ve received a number of projects already.”

Initial recommendations will be released this Spring and open for 30-days of public input. The council will release the initial comprehensive plan reflecting public input at the beginning of July.

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