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County stands to gain millions depending on BP settlement, fines

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By Lou Elliott Jones, Editor

When BP's oil started gushing into the Gulf of Mexico in April 2010 from the wellhead of the Deepwater Horizon rig, folks in five states held their breath as it headed towards the shore. 

Now, folks are waiting with bated breath to see how much responsibility — monetarily — will be assessed to BP for the damage the explosion and spill did to Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and Florida. 

Although the oil stayed away from Levy County's shoreline, its effects were felt. 

"The brand of the State of Florida was impacted," Bill Williams, a consultant hired by Levy County, said in a town hall meeting in Bronson on June 18. The meeting was held to explain how the county will benefit from the terms of the RESTORE Act passed by Congress. 

"There was harm done to our Gulf, and the federal government has a way to restore that opportunity," Williams said. 

The act divvies up the money that is expected to be paid by BP and its partners in the Deepwater Horizon rig drilling accident in settlements and fines. How much depends on the outcome of a trial under way in New Orleans on BP’s role in the accident. 

The money will be  divided into four "pots" and  is to be spent on re-building the five affected states, according to the law. 

Florida's share will be spread among 23 counties, with the lion’s share going to eight Panhandle counties that were most impacted by the spill. Levy is one of the 15 remaining counties.

To get an idea of what is in store, Williams and his wife, Amber Davis, also a consultant to the county, noted that TransOcean, the drilling rig’s owner, has agreed to pay a $1 billion settlement for its role in the spill. Under the formula, Levy County will receive about $546,000. Estimates of BP's eventual payment have been between $20-40 billion. 

Williams said the law was crafted by the environmental and business communities along with the Congressional delegations from the five affected states. He said it was the first time he had seen all of the interests work together. 

"It took 80 percent of these penalties and it put it back into the states," Williams said. "There is Pot 1, which comes directly back into these counties." The other pots go the the state, federal, and academic and research interests. Williams and Davis said Pot 1 gets 35 percent of that 80 percent. 

Williams exhorted the few people in the audience at the Bronson meeting to "Have some vision. This is different." He said decisions about spending the money will be based on science, and academics and the data presented with the projects. 

He said the county and its municipalities need to take off the shelf projects that they have been unable to do to better their economy because of a lack of money, dust them off and bring them up to date. "For example, how do you make the clam industry stronger here?" he said. 

Amber Davis said the goal of the meetings being held in the county's municipalities is to get residents and officials to have a better understanding of what the Act is and what they can do to secure money for projects. 

Davis also mentioned that the county stands to get money from the other pots like Pot 3 which sends money to the Florida Consortium that represents the 23 counties. 

Williams said Pot 3 is one where the proposed projects would stand a better chance of funding if they affect more than one county.

Pot 2 which goes to the state would cover ecosystem restoration projects for things like state parks, Davis said. She said more than 800 projects have been submitted to the state Department of Environmental Protection, which oversees the state parks and Pot 2 spending. 

Williams and Davis said the county's governments, non-profits and businesses need to be thinking about projects and they can access information about the RESTORE Act and the application online at www.levycounty.org. All projects can be "self-ranked" using a tool available at the site so applicants can know how well it would fare when an advisory committee created by the Levy County Commission ranks and recommends projects to the commission. 

The ultimate decision on projects funded by Pot 1 is up to the county commission. But Williams cautioned, "This is not first-come, first-served. This is more methodical." 

"This is a wonderful opportunity, not just for your non profits, but for the community to put your heads together, to pursue those ideas you may have had in the past that were not able to become reality."

Davis said a multi-county offshore reef would be a good project for the Consortium pot. "If you have an offshore reef project, reach out," to other counties to work together, she said. 

"When will we see the money," Davis asked. 

"We don't know. We're hoping it's sooner rather than later. That's not to say we can't start working."