Rep. Castor gets update on Gulf oil spill's economic, environmental impacts

04/19/11 Kate Bradshaw
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Tomorrow marks one year since the Deepwater Horizon oil rig exploded and sank into the Gulf of Mexico, killing eleven and causing untold economic and environmental havoc. Today, Democratic US Representative Kathy Castor convened a panel of stakeholders to assess the disaster’s impacts one year on. The group of hoteliers, seafood industry leaders and environmentalists said there’ve been some ups and downs. One key problem, they said, is perception – even though Pinellas County Beaches never got any oil. St. Pete Chamber of Commerce head Chris Steinocher said people still ask him which beaches don’t have any oil.

"On a daily basis, people still ask 'well, what beaches haven't been affected by this?' That is not an exaggeration."

This, despite a multi-million dollar advertising effort launched last year to try to convince potential visitors that most of Florida’s beaches were clean. Last year’s effort was funded by BP, and just last week Governor Rick Scott announced BP was giving another $30 million to seven Panhandle counties to fund an ad campaign promoting the beaches. DT Minich, Executive Director of Visit St. Pete Clearwater, said the problem with that is that those counties won’t promote Treasure Island or Clearwater Beach, and they also target a vastly different market than Pinellas County would.

"They don't focus a lot in the U.K., they're focusing in on the southeast drive market primarily, and so their markets are much different than ours."

The conundrum of how to get people back to Tampa Bay beaches may soon be compounded. A bill in the state legislature would dissolve the Florida Tourism Industry Marketing Corporation, also known as Visit Florida. The bill would do away with the public-private marketing partnership, and create a new entity called the Jobs Florida Partnership, which would be responsible for many things, including promoting tourism. Tradewinds Resort president Keith Overton said Visit Florida is one of the Tampa Bay Beaches’ most effective ways of reaching potential visitors.

"Visit Florida is the mechanism we do that through. I'm not going to put my money in if the government agency is appointing people to spend it that are not industry driven people."

Patricia Hubbard is president of Hubbard Properties, which owns much of John’s Pass Village. The waterfront Madeira Beach complex saw its occupancy rate drop to 63 percent after an extremely tough season. The company filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy in January, but the Hubbards have since gotten good news. They announced this morning that the Pier Aquarium, currently located in Downtown St. Pete, will be the tourism-dependent waterfront complex’s newest tenant, though Hubbard said there’s still uncertainty as to whether tourism will ever fully bounce back.

"We didn't lose last season, we lost last summer. Those are the folks that we don't know, this summer, if they'll return."

The Gulf seafood industry also got some good news today, when the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration announced it will reopen the 1,040 square miles of federal waters still closed off to fishing. A sizable chunk of federal waters had been closed after the gusher opened, and commercial fishing felt a tough hit. Michael Stephens, General Counsel and Corporate Secretary of St. Petersburg-based Bama Seafood Products, said the Gulf seafood industry faces a tough recovery.

"Our sales to grocery stores of Gulf caught shrimp are a third of what they were before the spill."

He said he’s still waiting for the final portion of the company’s claims against BP. Tradewinds president Keith Overton said he’s not too happy about the claims process, which uses BP money to compensate those that can prove they lost money due to the oil disaster.

"You can sign your rights away today for a check in the amount of double what you lost for the first 8 months, from April 20 through December 31st."

He said it’s not fair to make businesses choose between a check that may look good now and a check that may be significantly larger once the disaster’s long term impacts are factored in.

"With the unknowns that are out there which, you know, I continue to read all the emails from my friends who run the NGO's and all the environmental groups, every report that comes out from the academia world stirs up concern."

Jackie Dixon is Dean of the University of South Florida College of Marine Science, which provided a wealth of independent data on the disaster, and was the first to discover plumes of weathered oil that lurked beneath the water’s surface. She said researchers are still finding oil in the ecosystem – namely in sediments – and that the long term health of the gulf region is still a big question mark.

"The beaches look clean but there's still some microscopic bits of oil in the sand. Nothing that is toxic or harmful to humans, but we don't know what impact that will have on turtles when they're nesting this year."

US Representative Kathy Castor agreed that the environmental and economic impacts of the disaster are as yet untold. She said she wished the governor would leave no stone unturned when holding BP, Transocean, Halliburton, or any other company involved accountable for the losses that every gulf state is suffering.

"And that's why the larger legal strategy is important to insure that our local businesses and local governments and the tourism industry are adequately compensated."

Today Governor Rick Scott’s administration said Florida will not file suit against rig operator Transocean, but will instead go after BP. Scott said he hopes BP will agree to settle. Environmentalists at the roundtable stressed that the disaster’s impacts demonstrate the need to move beyond oil, but BP chair Carl-Henric Svanberg told the Associated Press that the Gulf Oil disaster never made the company think twice about deep water drilling.

Previous WMNF news coverage of the Gulf oil disaster

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