By DOTTY NIST
Members of the law firms representing Walton County in claims related to the Deepwater Horizon oil spill reviewed Walton County’s “wish list” for projects to be funded by BP and got public input on possible restoration projects.
This took place on May 24 at the second in a series of public workshops hosted by the law firms, Beasley Allen and local partner the Adkinson Law Firm. The South Walton Annex was the location. About a dozen citizens participated.
The workshop was part of the injury assessment and restoration planning step of the Natural Resources Damage Assessment (NRDA) process for the oil spill. The process is being conducted under regulations developed by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).
NRDA deals with the impact of natural resource losses to the public. The goal of the process is to make the public whole through restoration of lost resources and/or providing alternate opportunities to compensate for the loss of resources.
Rick Stratton of Beasley Allen explained that litigation takes a very long time to be resolved. He noted that the final appellate ruling for the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill was just last year. He also stated that the damage assessment process for the BP oil spill may take several years in itself.
Attorney Clay Adkinson commented that BP on April 20 BP offered up $1 billion for early restoration efforts, and that Florida will receive $100 million of that amount.
Stratton explained that there are three steps to be navigated for those funds to be used for any project. First the state Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) must approve, then Florida’s NRDA trustee must approve, and then BP must approve, he said.
He listed approval criteria for early restoration projects, which included that they must: contribute to making the environment and the public whole; address one or more specific injuries; be the same type, quality, and of comparable value as the impacted resource; be consistent with anticipated long-term restoration; and be feasible and cost effective.
Stratton said there has been some talk of impacted areas joining in on an across-the-coast or gulfwide restoration project.
A list of projects proposed for funding through the early restoration moneys was submitted by Walton County on May 17. Proposed for funding were a fishing pier, the county’s Habitat Conservation Plan, artificial reef construction, dune monitoring and restoration, water quality monitoring/restoration of the 15 coastal dune lakes, sea turtle monitoring/population restoration, shorebird monitoring and habitat/population restoration, land acquisition/dune walkovers, water quality monitoring/restoration of Choctawhatchee Bay, and beach nourishment. Also proposed were infrastructure projects to offset water quality impacts, including stormwater upgrade retrofits, stream and shoreline protection, and wetland restoration.
Adkinson saw a lesser chance of projects that might not hold up for a long period being approved such as dune restoration or beach nourishment, at least with the early restoration funding.
He saw the water quality monitoring and restoration of the county’s dune lakes as a project that would have a good chance for approval because of the uniqueness of the lakes. He was of the opinion that education, land acquisition and other ideas could possibly be tied in with the proposal.
Santa Rosa Beach resident Bill Bard commented that the Choctawhatchee Bay was “very important” to him, adding that it is also important in terms of fishing and as an estuary and nursery for fish reproduction.
Adkinson said he believed that there might be evidence of oil impacts on the bay. Stratton was of the opinion that the case could be made that enhancement of the bay as a resource could help it compensate for recreation impacts associated with the beach.
“Lose the fishing pier,” urged Suzanne Harris of Miramar Beach.
Adkinson said the goal was not to strike items from the county’s list but to prioritize proposals.
He urged attendees who belonged to groups to talk with other groups and seek to blend together projects they would like to see take place. He invited further public input, which he said could be conveyed to himself, Stratton, or Walton County Environmental Manager Billy McKee. Public comment will be compiled, and county commissioners are to be informed on the results of the workshops and other public input.
Adkinson said collaboration among counties with regard to the funding will be necessary, but that the attorneys’ goal will be securing viable projects for Walton County.
At least one more public workshop is planned in the series. Information on that meeting will be forthcoming.