Three years after BP oil spill, a positive upshot for Manatee County

April 23, 2013 

Three years ago 11 oil rig workers died in a fiery explosion at the Deepwater Horizon drilling platform out in the Gulf of Mexico. The 4 million gallons of oil that gushed out of the broken well brought immediate environmental and economic damage to the entire gulf region. The repercussions continue to this day in courtrooms, marine science labs and the ecosystem.

The tough lessons can never be lost as the years pass. The gulf's aquatic food chain still suffers, the seafood industry continues to catch sick fish, and beaches and marshes still show signs of oil.

On Saturday, the third anniversary of that horrible blast, Florida filed a lawsuit against oil giant BP and cement contractor Halliburton over the disaster's economic fallout in lost tax revenues. Although BP alone has paid out some $30 billion in cleanup costs, fines and settlements, the company is fighting Florida, Louisiana, Alabama and Mississippi over the states' demand for billions more in economic damages. Cities have also joined the fray.

Manatee County suffered, too, with beach resorts losing guests, island home sales canceled, tax revenue lost and other impacts over fears of oil-tainted beaches that never materialized. But the county and its municipalities stand to benefit from the flood of money flowing to governments, particularly for environmental projects covered by grants under the federal RESTORE Act.

One particular Manatee County project rose to the top of the priority list for funding in the entire nine-county Tampa Bay, Sarasota Bay and Charlotte Harbor estuary ecosystem -- an incredible stroke of good fortune not only for environmental restoration but for our quality of life and our tourism industry.

Manatee's Robinson Preserve earned the highest rating out of the 230 environmental improvement projects submitted from governments, universities, non-profits and other entities from Levy to Collier counties.

All those projects ranged from large-scale coastal habitat restoration, land acquisition and water quality enhancements to research, monitoring and education programs. The Robinson Preserve project is earmarked for the additional 150-acre tract to the original 487-acre park. The county acquired the valuable land in December thanks to the Conservation Foundation of the Gulf Coast via a $3.2 million donation from the Mosaic Company Foundation.

The popular northwest Bradenton park will gain fresh opportunities for recreational, educational and environmental enjoyment by residents and visitors alike with a new wetland, upland restoration, trails, boardwalks, bridges and more. A couple dozen acres of the new addition to the preserve hold a unique botanical treasure that traces its roots back more than a century ago when nurseryman Ward Reasoner farmed the site and planted seeds gathered from around the world.

This potential $4.45 million RESTORE project would also help the health of northern part of Palma Sola Bay by flushing the somewhat trapped bay water out into the Intercoastal Waterway and beyond. The construction of a canal linking an existing waterway would accomplish that.

The Robinson Preserve project fits perfectly with the goals of the RESTORE Act.

Florida and all Gulf coast states must remain vigilant and protect our greatest natural resource. The impacts of the Deepwater Horizon disaster may not disappear for generations. Florida was correct in suing for economic losses this past week, and Manatee County is fortunate to be atop the list of environmental projects for the region.

Three years and counting, we're still dealing with a senseless tragedy, and one wonders how many more years will pass before a full recovery has come.

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