By DOTTY NIST
As requested by the state, Walton County commissioners have selected the top five projects on the county’s “wish list” for potential funding by BP and have set priority rankings for those projects.
The decision took place at the Aug. 9 Walton County Board of County Commissioners (BCC) meeting at the South Walton Courthouse Annex.
These are projects proposed for funding in order to address natural resource losses suffered by the public as a result of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. The prioritization is part of the Natural Resources Damage Assessment (NRDA) process, which is being conducted under regulations developed by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).
County Administrator Greg Kisela explained that the state Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) and the governor’s office has requested that the commissioners choose their “top five” projects from the county’s list of 23 proposals and do a ranking of the projects. He said the state would not be committing to honoring the commissioners’ selection or ranking but wanted to know their preferences.
Billy McKee, county environmental manager, commented that the ranking was part of an effort to divide up early restoration funding by BP. He explained that $1 billion of such funding had been put forth by BP, with each state impacted by the oil spill to get $100 million. In Florida, he said, that would mean “divvying up” that amount among $1.6 billion of proposed projects.
In response to a question, McKee said it was his understanding that all 23 projects on Walton County’s list met the criteria for the process. He said workshops had been held to get public input on potential projects and that the public could continue to comment and recommend projects.
Project proposals are being evaluated by a trustee council that includes of representatives of the five gulf coast states affected by the oil spill and representatives from the Department of the Interior, the Department of Defense, and the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. Comments to the trustee council may be submitted electronically or by mail. Information is available by logging on to www.gulfspillrestoration.noaa.gov or by calling 1-888-547-0174.
The commissioners took public comment prior to making their selections. Sandestin resident Susan Forsythe’s proposed projects were not on Walton County’s list. She said she continued to be very concerned about oil and tarballs in the gulf. She has been asking for further water testing in the gulf—and for the posting of signs to encourage anyone encountering oil to report it so that it could be cleaned up and reported to authorities.
Jacquee Markel commented that it has been indicated at NRDA workshops that there is interest with the process in what the public would like to see with restoration efforts. Anita Page of the South Walton Community Council added that it has been stated at NRDA meetings that a cap on the cost of projects is desired and that proposals for projects that can be implemented quickly are being sought at this time. Page added that, due to documented impacts of the oil spill in Walton County, she believes that the county will get its fair share of the funding.
Kisela said it was his understanding that there would be an attempt to utilize Florida’s share of the advance funding in 60 to 90 days. “To get it tied up, anyway,” McKee responded.
“This is not a gift,” Michael Sturdivant of the Surfrider Foundation emphasized. He warned against “frivolous” proposals, instead encouraging that projects be proposed that would “reduce environmental impact,” such as cutting the consumption of energy. Such measures would reduce the chance of choices that led to the oil spill, Sturdivant told the commissioners.
Sturdivant said his organization would also oppose large-scale beach restoration projects because “rules have changed” and as much as 5-percent mud and silt could be pumped onto the beach in such projects. He added that they would oppose the construction of seawalls with the funding—or any other project that would “work against preservation.”
Local attorney Clay Adkinson, who is part of a legal team representing Walton County with BP claims, noted that additional funding for projects will be available later from BP and that the commissioners’ selection of projects will not preclude other Walton County proposals from being funded.
The commissioners selections included, in priority order: the design, permitting and construction of a Walton County fishing pier approximately 1,600 feet in length, to be constructed at Grayton Beach State Park, at an estimated cost of $12.8 million; a Walton County marine fish hatchery/research center with wastewater treatment and plant production center for restoration projects at an estimated cost of $13 million; offshore and inshore construction of 20 artificial reefs at an estimated total cost of $2 million; water quality and inland water studies, monitoring and restoration of 15 coastal dune lakes at an estimated cost of $10 million; and recreation loss projects, including land acquisition for public use and construction/repair of public boardwalks and dune walkovers at a cost of approximately $35 million.
The selection and ranking were approved by unanimous vote.