When the Deepwater Horizon oil rig exploded and gushed crude oil into the Gulf of Mexico, folks in Levy County warily watched to see if the oil would reach the county's coastlines.
While the oil came no closer than about 250 miles, it affected Levy's tourism and aquaculture businesses as visitors vacationed elsewhere and stopped buying Florida seafood fearing contamination.
Now the county could get a share of the fines to be paid by BP — operator of the oil rig — under the federal Clean Water Act.
A Florida Association of Counties consultant told the county commission in its Tuesday meeting that BP is expected to be fined between $5-20 billion with Levy's share being between $2.7 and $10.9 million. Doug Darling, the FAC consultant, said the county should join the Gulf Consortium, a group of counties along the Gulf, that will facilitate receiving the fine money from a trust fund established by Congress to send the fine money to the five states affected by the spill instead of going to the federal government. “There are those who would like this to fail,” he said. The consortium is a way to have the ability to spend the money “without being dictated to.”
“The consortium will be in the driver's seat,” Darling said.
The county agreed and will pay the $640 share of the money to get the consortium started and appointed Commissioner Ryan Bell of Chiefland (R-District 4) as its representative because his district includes Cedar Key, the county's major tourism and aquaculture spot. The commission also named Commissioner Marsha Drew of Yankeetown (D-District 3) and County Coordinator Fred Moody as alternates. The consortium will meet for the first time on Oct. 22 in Tallahassee.
Darling ran through a laundry list of ways the RESTORE Act, passed by Congress earlier this year, could be spent. The list includes ecological, wildlife and natural resource restoration, promoting seafood and tourism, economic development, port infrastructure, workforce development and job creation.
“There's not much on that list that would not benefit your county,” Darling said.
Another fund to be shared by six federal agencies and five states would provide money for more focused projects. “You could spend it on oyster re-nourishment or seagrass re-nourishment.” He said the county should take its comprehensive plan off the shelf and use it in planning how to spend the money.
He said there is also other money coming from the spill that the county could share in that is specifically for the 23 Florida counties that are on the Gulf. “This 30 percent could be $300 million to $1 billion and Florida gets 19-20 percent of this.”
Commission Chair Danny Stevens of Williston (D-District 5) asked whether the consortium had an expiration date. Darling said it will continue “until all the money is exhausted.” And he reminded the commission that the settlement from the Exxon Valdez oil spill in Alaska in 1989 is still coming in.
Darling said a federal trial is due to start in mid-January in Louisiana to assess fault in the Deepwater Horizon incident, but BP is expected to settle out of court.