EDITORIAL: Environment should be the real priority in Florida’s BP settlement

After the explosion on the Deepwater Horizon oil rig that unleashed about 134 million barrels of oil into the Gulf of Mexico in 2010, the petroleum company BP finally came to a settlement with the affected Gulf states. 

Last week, BP agreed to pay $18.7 billion after its lawsuit with Florida and four other states in damages for water pollution, according to the Tampa Bay Times. Florida could expect more than $3.25 billion paid over a period of 18 years. While Florida’s lawsuit did not include damages to the state’s environment and the settlement will only repair economic losses, projects aimed at environmental restoration should also be the focus of funding.

As mentioned in the Times, $2 billion will be going toward repairing losses in the tourism and seafood industries. Though Florida’s tourism is dependent on the state’s environment, as oiled beaches damaged the view of Florida as a picturesque vacation spot, some of the approved restoration projects don’t affect the environment at all.

The gulf restoration projects currently in conversation are for purely economic benefit. For example, some include starting a ferry service, opening a boat ramp and fixing a boardwalk, as discussed in the Times.

It’s unclear how the rest of the money will be spent, but since Florida’s shorelines were affected by 2.8 million pounds of oil product, according to the Florida Department of Environmental Protection (DEP), it’s obvious the money should be allocated to more important projects than solar-powered lights. 

While the tourism industry does need restoration for it’s  lost revenue in various taxes, from sales to alcohol, the tourism projects that get funded should also attempt to simultaneously improve the environment, whether with emphasis on conservation, restoration or research.

The oil spill had a clearly devastating effect on Florida’s marine life. As mentioned in the Times, it killed pelicans, dolphins and sea turtles and caused deformities in shrimp and crabs. As found by USF researchers, it also left fish with lesions and oil in sandy patties that washed onto Pinellas County’s Sunset Beach. 

The focus, then, should be less on reeling in money for tourist attractions and more about helping what can be saved.   

Previous projects in the state to recover both the economy and the environment after the spill — projects funded by the Natural Resource Damage Assessment, the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation and MOEX Offshore — show the money used for both efforts was nearly equal. According to DEP, about $89 million and $87 million were spent on recreational and ecological projects, respectively. The settlement should have been allocated similarly. 

Though tourism is what drives the state’s economy, the condition of Florida’s wildlife is just as important, if not more so, especially since tourism is dependent on the state’s environment — which was one of many lessons learned in the Deepwater Horizon disaster.

According to the Times, Tampa will get $27.4 million, which is less than the city expected. Hillsborough County will receive $28 million and plans to use $600,000 on improvements to parks and fishing areas.

The oil spill is deemed the worst environmental disaster in the country’s history, and the long-term damage of the incident won’t be known for years, according to the National Wildlife Federation. The Times noted that Florida received the best possible deal, so the money should then be for handling environmental disturbances that still remain after five years’ time.