‘Tip of the iceberg’: County discusses joining 23-county Gulf consortium

Molly Mosher

Pens were poised to sign the RESTORE Act draft agreement Tuesday morning, but no ink made it to paper.

The draft Gulf consortium would sign Walton County into a forum of 23 Florida counties, the purpose of which would be to discuss the sharing of a large chunk of a settlement from the BP oil spill.

The Board of County Commissioners held a workshop to discuss how it would proceed with RESTORE Act negotiations at 8 a.m. Tuesday before its regularly scheduled BCC meeting.

The 23 Florida counties are those that border the Gulf of Mexico, all of which stand to earn funds from RESTORE. Eight of these counties were designated as “disproportionally affected” by the 2010 spill.

The other 15 counties were more affected by losses in tourism revenue than by oil.

The amount for Walton County could be $29 million to $116 million for the “disproportionately affected” county. The county would be able to spend this money as it sees fit.

“It’s time at the local level for us to go ahead,” said Commissioner Sara Comander, “and start working on those projects.”

The county has not yet designated projects for this money, but has made a list of potential National Resource Damage Assessment projects for a separate grant pool. These projects include a fish hatchery, a fishing pier, and an artificial reef. If NRDA funds are not approved for these projects, the county may opt to apply RESTORE funds to some of these.

But that is all far in the future.

“It may be two years” before the RESTORE monies come through, said Comander.

“This is just the tip of the iceberg,” said Jason Catalano, aide to Commissioner Cecilia Jones, of the signing the Gulf Consortium draft agreement.

Time is of the essence to sign the agreement and appoint a representative, according to Comander and Jones. If the county does not sign into the agreement, Gov. Rick Scott will choose a representative for the county.

“There’s no one better than us who knows what our county needs,” said Jones, who said a locally appointed representative would be best for the county.

Though those gathered realized the importance of signing the document, the citizens asked the county to make changes to the document before finalizing it.

“We’re not exactly in the driver’s seat,” said Anita Page with the South Walton Community Council of the current verbiage.

Attendees like Page worried that South Florida could get a disproportionate amount of the funding while not bearing the initial costs to secure the RESTORE Act windfall.

As well, Page pointed out, “Other counties could be added. At what point is there a cut-off? I can’t imagine other counties wouldn’t want to join. How do we make this as fair as possible?”

Commissioners agreed that it was not perfect, and set another meeting for further discussion and improvement of the existing document.

“If we’re going to approve this document, there needs to be changes made before,” Commissioner Kenneth Pridgen said.

Further discussion of the RESTORE Act and how Walton County will participate in the consortium will be held Oct. 3 at 9 a.m. at the county courthouse in DeFuniak Springs. Florida Association of Counties Executive Director Chris Holley will be present for the discussion, which will touch on the document’s language, the signing, and appointing a county representative and alternate to the consortium of counties.

Future District 5 Commissioner Cindy Meadows brought up a point that should be remembered going forward: “The citizens are expecting Walton County to be aggressive … South Florida will eat our lunch … We need to tell them what we want.”

RESTORE Act by the numbers

It is estimated that 4.9 million barrels of oil spilled into the Gulf in 2010, which, because of the Clean Water Act, is a fineable offense.

The fine per barrel could be $1,100 if it’s just an accident. If BP is seen as guilty of gross negligence in mitigating the problem, the fine is a whopping $4,300 per barrel.

BP will pay from $5.4 billion to $21 billion in the RESTORE Act settlement.

Whatever the final payout will be, 80 percent will be put in a fund to benefit the Gulf Coast region. The other 20 percent will go to the oil spill trust fund.

From there, the 80 percent will be separated into three large pots of 30, 30, and 35 percent. The remaining 5 percent will be divided evenly between the Gulf States Marine Fisheries Commission and a center of excellence in each state.

Thirty percent will go to an 11-member Gulf Coast Ecosystem Restoration Council, made up of secretaries of interior, commission, agriculture and army, an administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, and head of the department from which the Coast Guard is operating. The other five representatives are governors from each of the five states affected by the oil spill.

The 35 percent will be divided equally among the five Gulf Coast states affected by the 2010 spill, Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, and Florida. 

Each individual state will also earn 30 percent to be allocated by different local governing bodies. Florida has opted to have the allocating body take the form of a 23-county consortium, of which the eight “disproportionately affected” counties will take 75 percent of the pot, with the remaining 25 percent going to the other 15 counties.