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County reps seek public comment as BP restoration process begins

May 26th, 2011 | 0

By REID TUCKER

Two of the attorneys representing Walton County in the massive BP oil spill claim proceedings held the first of two town-hall style meetings to inform the public about the nature of the Natural Resource Damage Assessment and Restoration (NRDAR) process.

Richard Stratton, an attorney with Beasley Allen, the firm representing Florida during the remediation process, joined by fellow attorney Clay Adkinson, held the meeting Thursday, May 19 at the South Walton Tourist Development Council in Santa Rosa Beach. The next meeting was set for May 24.

The primary purpose of the NRDAR is twofold. First, it determines the extent of the damage done to natural resources and, secondly, it creates an economic model that can be used to calculate what that damage is worth in dollars. The damage assessment is straightforward enough, but the second part of the equation is determined by figuring the monetary cost associated with the loss of use of a natural resource, be it cancelled beach days or lost fishing trips.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration was appointed as the NRDAR trustee for the federal government, while in Florida’s case the responsibility to carry out the NRDAR assessment fell on the state Department of Environmental Protection. Stratton said the government is only entitled to recover for the losses to federal lands, waters and resources while the states’ trustees are only entitled to recover the damages associated to state properties with no overlaps. However, Stratton explained this arrangement puts individual counties at a disadvantageous position in the resulting claims bureaucracy.

“As a subdivision of the governmental entity, the county is pretty much at the mercy of the state as far as how it is included in the process,” Stratton said. “We think that it’s important that Walton County be recognized for the uniqueness of its natural resources and that it’s treated fairly along with the other counties.”

With that in mind, Beasley Allen has acquired all numeric test data gathered by FDEP in the year after the oil spill. Stratton said this data will be crucial if Walton County is to make a strong case for itself as the most deserving among Florida’s counties for the majority of the $100 million initially promised each of the five states state for restoration projects. He said BP is only obliged to pay for the projects to be done, so it will be to the company’s advantage for it to “get as much credit for as little outlay” as possible.

Stratton said the public should document (preferably by photograph) any environmental damage not previously recorded and cataloged. He said this documentation could be called upon to ensure Walton County gets its share of the settlement money for specific projects rather than a broader “blanket approach.”

“We’re prepared to go as far as we need to go with additional testing and analysis, Stratton said. “We may not need to do any but we’re prepared to do it if we have to.”

Though BP faces potential fines of up to $20 billion, this money won’t likely begin to be divvied up until the summer of 2012. In the meantime, the plan is for one county in each of the five affected states to select one restoration project as a sort of proof-of-concept trial run designed to shake out any bugs in the system or to see if BP will make good on its promises.

While a generalized list of proposed restoration projects throughout the county was compiled and submitted to the FDEP trustees in March, Adkinson, who represents the local interests of the cities of DeFuniak Springs and Freeport, said the more specific an item was, the more likely it would be to win out over the competition from other counties in the state.

“All the Southern coastal counties are asking for (beach) nourishment money,” Adkinson said. “We’ve got to be able to put something specific in front of [BP] to show them why Walton County needs very specific money for very specific items.”

The top items on the proposal range from restoration of beaches and sand dunes, a decade-long coastal dune lake monitoring program, restoration of public access to the beaches and changes to infrastructure to offset water quality impacts. Regardless of which was ultimately chosen and submitted before the June 1 deadline, Stratton said it had to straddle the line between being too costly and being insufficiently ambitious. The main thing to consider, however, is if the empirical data substantiates the rationale behind that choice.

“This has never been done on such a scale so there’s a learning curve,” Stratton said. “It’s a new game and data drives the process. The environmental bean counters want to see a big pot of beans.”

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