The Escambia County RESTORE Act Advisory Committee convened for the first time today. The body will advise the county commission on how best to use the still-undetermined Clean Water Act fines headed for Escambia as a result of the 2010 oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.
“We’re dead serious about the seriousness of this committee,” Commission Chairman Gene Valentino addressed the advisory board.
During the group’s initial meeting, members were briefed on Sunshine Law, ethics and RESTORE Act-specifics. The committee also selected a chairman and vice chairman.
Bentina Terry, a Gulf Power executive, was selected to chair the committee. Alan McMillan, a former Deputy Assistant Secretary of Labor for the Employment Standards Administration and also a member of the county’s Mass Transit Advisory Committee, was voted co-chair. Both votes were unanimous, with members Tammy Bohannon and Donnie McMahon absent.
The RESTORE committee is comprised of individuals selected by elected officials, a collection of environmental groups and the county commission as a whole. Terry was selected by Mayor Ashton Hayward, along with the Pensacola City Council, and McMillan was selected by Commissioner Wilson Robertson.
Steve Williams, a consultant hired by the county to work on RESTORE issues, provided the committee with an overview of the Act itself—which directs 80 percent of Clean Water Act penalties back to the Gulf Coast—and spoke about what the process ahead might entail.
“At this point,” Williams told the committee, “we’re really dealing with air, because we don’t know what those penalties are.”
Currently, the federal government and BP are in court to determine the extent of damages. Estimates have hovered in the $10 to $20 billion range, but there is now speculation that a deal might involve directing funds away from Clean Water Act (RESTORE) and towards the Natural Resource Defense Assessment (NRDA); that would be financially beneficial to BP and, perhaps, beneficial to environments that suffered the brunt of the oil spill, but it would also mean less money for Escambia.
“That’s a big deal,” Williams told the board.
While waiting on the federal government and BP to reach a settlement, as well as for the treasury department to issue exact rules for RESTORE, the county advisory committee will wade into its work relying, to some degree, on theory and assumptions.
“We’re working without a net right now,” Williams said.
The group also heard from several county commissioners today. The elected officials offered a mix of direction and pep-talk.
Commissioner Lumon May encouraged inclusion, “from the big guy to the little guy.” Valentino urged the committee to pay attention to a priority-list provided by the Greater Pensacola Chamber.
Commissioner Grover Robinson, who has been the county’s point-person on oil-spill issues, optimistically cautioned the committee as they embarked on new terrain.
“It’s the first time,” he said of the assembled committee. “You’re going to feel some growing pains because we’ve never done this before. But that’s the fun of it—we’ve never done this before.”
Robinson also asked the committee to work with a vision. He said they should focus on ways to transform the area, not just short-term gains.
“Ultimately we will do projects, yes, we will do projects, but I don’t want any of you to be driven by projects,” Robinson said, stressing his vision-approach. “—truly thinking about those things that will change us. Not just what will feed us tomorrow, but what will feed us into the future.”
The RESTORE committee has not determined a meeting schedule yet. The next meeting is tentatively set for April 8, with plans to meet every two weeks, most likely on a Tuesday or Wednesday.