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Florida Sues BP For $5.4 Billion; Lawmakers Want To Create A Trust Fund

S Rodriguez

Oil washed ashore for weeks and months following the spill from a rig operated by BP, denting tourism and damaging coastal shorelines.

Places like Franklin  Wakulla and Escambia, where the local economy is driven off of tourism and fishing, saw the most damage. Those areas are still recovering from the spill, even though tourism has been on the rebound. Florida is suing BP for $5.4 billion in damages, something Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi called a last resort after BP didn’t respond to a settlement offer.

“The last thing we want to do is get involved in protracted litigation," Bondi said. "You want to do everything in your power to settle a case. But also we’re going to look out for our state and we’re going to maximize our recovery from this horrible disaster. We are ready to go to trial when they are.”   

Meanwhile Florida lawmakers are creating a trust fund to hold any money the state may get as a result of that lawsuit.  But some local government officials see the legislature’s trust fund as an attempt to usurp local control.

Eight Florida panhandle counties are getting oil spill compensation directly through the federal Restore Act that was passed last year. But officials in those counties worry some or all of that cash flow might be diverted into the trust fund being set up by the state to collect proceeds from its lawsuit against BP.

"We know best how to repair our damaged community. The funding criteria for this amendment would put Franklin County at a serious disadvantage," said Franklin County Commissioner Pinki Jackal.

For Franklin, the BP Oil Spill only further damaged the already fragile ecosystem of the Apalachicola Bay, which has been suffering due to low water levels, and the dying off of oysters. Jackal says she’s concerned the amendment creating the trust fund means Franklin could get nothing, because the funding priorities outlined in the language center on business and economic development.

“It’s unfortunate that the biggest asset that Franklin County has is the Apalachicola Bay system. The environment has no priority in the amendment before you today, and its dead last in the funding priority list.”    

The trust fund is a last-minute addition into a larger, less controversial bill aimed at boosting accountability in the state’s economic development agency. Bill Sponsor Senator Nancy Detert (R-Venice), says the proposal won’t interfere with federal Restore Act money going directly to counties.

“The amendment does not preempt federal law or change how the restore act works. So everyone can stop talking about that," she said.

Detert says the trust fund is being set up to make sure the process of allocating future BP dollars is fair.

“We’re sensitive to their environmental needs-especially Franklin County, which I’ve visited....this will create fairness between all eight affected counties, which is a much better system than, the person with the most important senator, that county gets more than the other counties. That’s the kind of system we don’t want to see.”    

The non-profit Triumph Gulf Coast, Inc., would operate under the Department of Economic Opportunity. It would administer any funds recovered by the state’s BP lawsuit to the eight affected counties:  Bay, Escambia, Franklin, Gulf, Okaloosa, Santa Rosa, Walton and Wakulla. Senate President Don Gaetz is backing the effort. The trust fund’s creation comes after a case in Gaetz’ home county of Okaloosa, where the former tourist development director committed suicide after authorities began investigating him for misusing BP oil spill funds.

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Lynn Hatter is a Florida A&M University graduate with a bachelor’s degree in journalism. Lynn has served as reporter/producer for WFSU since 2007 with education and health care issues as her key coverage areas.  She is an award-winning member of the Capital Press Corps and has participated in the NPR Kaiser Health News Reporting Partnership and NPR Education Initiative. 

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