A welcome investment in Manatee County: BP money

January 8, 2013 

In an exercise of what could be viewed as wishful thinking -- which we would celebrate mightily if realized -- Manatee County officials have approved $68.6 million in environmental restoration projects that would be funded by the rather massive penalties against the company primarily responsible for the Gulf of Mexico oil spill two years ago.

That's a lot of money for a county that did not suffer from tar balls and oiled beaches. But the loss of tourism dollars and tax revenue due to the worldwide misperception that the entire state sustained environmental damage did impact Manatee County. And our fishing industry, both commercial and recreational, took a hit, too. But this particular honey pot of billions in fines and penalties is only designed for one thing -- the environment.

One environmentalist called it "funny money" that cannot be counted until legal issues are settled. BP has already pleaded guilty in a criminal case resulting out of the Deepwater Horizon disaster and agreed to billions in fines but still faces a civil trial next month over allegations of gross negligence. That could result in additional billions in fines under the Clean Water Act -- even up to $20 billion more.

With Tallahassee's misguided defunding of Florida Forever -- the valuable program that paid for the purchase of environmentally sensitive lands for preservation -- the BP money will be most welcome.

Proposed projects must be ultimately approved by the Gulf Coast Ecosystem Restoration Council under rules established by the federal RESTORE Act.

Manatee County is already estimated to get somewhere between $4.8 million and $19 million, according to the Florida Association of Counties. That amount alone would accomplish great things here.

Atop the list of priorities approved by county commissioners last Thursday features a new land acquisition that would host new wildlife habitat. With an infusion of $4.45 million in BP money, the 150-acre addition to the Robinson Preserve would be able to become home to new coastal wetlands and marsh from old farm fields -- a key ingredient to securing BP funds.

The money is only intended to pay for environmental restorations and enhancements that would help the Gulf of Mexico rebound from any future pollution catastrophe. The Robinson Preserve provides prime habitat for birds and other wildlife essential to the health of the entire Gulf. In the event of another disaster, wildlife flees into safer habitat -- like the pristine environment here in Manatee County. Every Gulf coast community is essential to the overall health of this critical ecosystem.

To his credit, Manatee County's director of natural resources, Charlie Hunsicker, did not propose pie-in-the-sky projects to commissioners.

Some $50 million in his plan would be set aside for acquisition of ecologically sensitive lands over the next decade or so, a vital amount since the state of Florida has all but abandoned any effort at environmental protection.

Manatee County is a part of the big picture in Gulf health. Yes, the county is deserving of BP money under this environmental program.

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