It’s peak tourism season in the Gulf Coast, and in Destin, the Harbor is bustling with people sipping rum drinks, taking pirate cruises and lounging on the decks of a giant waterfront restaurant, A-J’s Seafood and Oyster House.
“I personally don’t think I saw enough oil to fill up a one-gallon bucket,” said Alan Laird, the business’ owner. “But [it was the] worst year and only year in 26 years of business that I did less than the year prior, so financially it was devastating.”
Destin and Okaloosa County are seeing robust tourism numbers this year, but, back when the oil spill happened, in 2010, Laird says, it was a different story, not because of physical damage but because of public perception.
Laird, like thousands of business owners on the Gulf Coast, filed claims in a class-action suit against the BP oil company. Many of those claims remain unsettled two years after the Deep Horizon oil rig explosion caused the worst oil spill in history in the Gulf of Mexico. But regardless of what happens in the law suit, local leaders are putting their hopes for new relief money in Congress, where a committee is considering legislation that would send affected states an expected $18 billion in relief money.
The RESTORE Act is now on the table in a conference committee. It would take fines collected from BP and other companies responsible for the oil spill, put 20 percent in a trust fund and split the remaining 80 percent between the five Gulf Coast states—Florida, Louisiana, Alabama, Mississippi and Texas. Of the states’ money, five-percent would be put into a research, 35- percent would be split up directly among the states, and 60-percent would be divided in half, with one part going to the federal and state governments for restoration, and the other being divided among the states. At least, that’s according to a mind-boggling calculation that involves the inverse proportion of the average distance from the oil rig to the oiled shoreline of each state.
“There’s just lots of numbers to keep up with!” That’s Myrtis Franke, Southern district director for Mississippi Senator Thad Cochran, who was attempting to explain the RESTORE Act language to a group of Florida Panhandle business owners and lawmakers at the Gulf Coast Restoration Summit. The group met in Destin to talk about how they’d like the money to be used, if the act passes. The most recent estimate of Florida’s cut would be about $2.2 billion, with 75-percent of that going to the most affected counties, and 25-percent going to other coastal counties. State Representative Doug Broxson of Gulf Breeze, said his biggest concern is promoting tourism in the eight affected Panhandle counties.
“If we don’t do that, and we use it for general infrastructure within the 8 counties, then we will look back in 10 years and the money will be gone and there will be no sign that this ever happened.”
The RESTORE Act has already passed the U.S. Senate, and the House version is in a conference committee as part of a larger transportation bill. Florida Senators Marco Rubio and Bill Nelson co-sponsored the Senate version of the act,, but Rubio then voted against it because he objected to an amendment that would have diverted interest from the fine money to a national ocean study program. That amendment is not part of the version being considered in the House. What both bills do have in common is the list of approved projects that the money could be used for, including the development and promotion of tourism, restaurants and hotels. If the act does not pass, the issue could be delayed until after the presidential election.