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Panhandle Counties Huddle To Discuss RESTORE Projects

BP's Deepwater Horizon oil rig on fire in 2010.
US Coast Guard

Eight panhandle counties are hammering out how to spend the next round of RESTORE Act funds from the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill.  Walton County hosted officials from seven neighboring counties Monday.

BP’s oil spill devastated broad swaths of the Gulf Coast, and while five years on much of the region looks good as new, the recovery in some ways is just beginning.  After years of legal wrangling, earlier this month Attorney General Pam Bondi announced a multistate settlement with BP, and RESTORE act funds—already flowing—appear ready to begin disbursement in earnest.  Gulf County RESTORE Coordinator Warren Yeager describes the efforts of the eight panhandle counties coming together to get their piece of the pie.

“Probably 30-40 of us, several different times went to DC with coordination from different offices, walked the halls of Congress,” Yeager says.  “And when Congress couldn’t pass any other legislation, we got 76 senators to support the RESTORE Act sending 80 percent of the fine moneys back to the local communities where it was affected.”

RESTORE Act funds come from fines related to the Clean Water Act, and thanks to that lobbying a portion of the money is being passed directly through to municipal governments. 

But while gaining some local control over those funds was difficult, Rep. Doug Broxson (R-Pensacola) says now those communities face an even greater challenge: spending it. 

“If one dime is spent incorrectly, if one project is politically motivated, for your reelection or someone’s reelection, if one area of malfeasance, we will all pay the price,” Broxson warns.  “But we can do it.  I know we’re going to do it, and we’re going to do it right.”

And while good, old-fashioned corruption should be easy to spot and avoid, a much trickier call will be deciding which projects are worthy.  Some in the business world, like Scott Luth from the Escambia County economic development agency argue the funding could be the answer for a broader regional question.

“How do we make sure that we have an economy that’s diverse,” Luth asks, “and that we can continue to withstand those things that may happen, whether they’re natural disasters that come through, or whether they’re manmade disasters such as the BP that had major impacts not only environmental but also had economic impacts to this region.”

This contrasts with the wishes of some environmental groups.  They argue the funds, based on Clean Water Act violations, should be devoted to conservation rather than boosting the economy.  They also point out the settlement already includes $2 billion earmarked for economic claims.