Over 11 years after the Deepwater Horizon oil rig exploded, St. Petersburg received an additional $1.063 million in settlement money; now, the city is trying to put it to good use.
On April 20, 2010, the drilling platform caught fire and eventually sank into the Gulf of Mexico, about 40 miles off the Louisiana coast. The tragedy resulted in 11 deaths and the largest marine oil spill in history. In addition to environmental damage that scientists say persists to this day, the disaster caused economic hardships for cities and residents along the Gulf Coast.
After years of lawsuits, BP (formerly British Petroleum) settled for tens of billions of dollars. St. Petersburg initially received and allocated about $6.5 million. In Dec. 2021, the city received another $1.063 million, and officials are now deciding where to spend the money – with addressing noxious odors that many blame on an oil recycling plant in Childs Park receiving much of the focus.
“Since there’s some industrial and some oil-related, fuel-related potential air quality issues,” said Sharon Wright, sustainability and resilience officer. “And we’ve already had a lot of robust discussion around that.”
During Thursday’s Budget, Finance and Taxation Committee meeting, city administrators recommended that council members approve allocating $450,000 of the settlement to the Greater Childs Park Environmental Assessment and Mitigation program. The Foundation for a Healthy St. Pete has funded pilot studies thus far, and the city must further investigate the odor source and implement mitigation measures.
In addition, administrators proposed spending $245,000 on funding the Neighborhood Resilience Collective (NRC), which will build upon the foundation’s Resilience Hub efforts in Childs Park. Wright explained that pilot participants could serve as mentors for other neighborhood leaders while expanding efforts in their area.
However, council members noted the city has little power to enforce environmental regulations.
Claude Tankersley, public works administrator, said he is working closely with his Pinellas County counterparts to create a more efficient process. That includes potentially creating staffing space in city facilities near Childs Park so county investigators can react faster to citizen complaints.
Councilmember Deborah Figgs-Sanders said she lives nearby and explained that the noxious odors shift with the wind, hindering investigations. While she wants to partner with the county and state to pinpoint the source, she said the city should take the lead on mitigation efforts.
“You walk out the front door, and there’s the refinery,” said Figgs-Sanders. “The owner of the refinery has not been very cooperative, and moving forward, having those conversations with the county, I think what we do on a local level is critical.”
While many city leaders and residents believe the noxious smells emanate from a particular industrial site in the area, said Tankersley, other companies in the area could also cause the “general hydrocarbon type odor.” It is his understanding, he added, that the county and state can verify citizens’ claims and enforce regulations, but not investigate the specific source.
Wright relayed that the county is not contributing any funding to the environmental assessment or mitigation measures, as its enforcement department does not conduct investigations. Councilmember Gina Driscoll noted the city typically doesn’t perform that work either – but they were discussing allocating $450,000 to address the problem.
“We’re suggesting that we as the city step forward and start that process ourselves for the community,” said Tankersley. “Rather than waiting (for the county) to collect enough verified complaints that we can actually point a finger at a specific industry.”
While administrators suggested spending 61% of the additional BP settlement money on initiatives related to Childs Park, administrators also recommended that three other programs receive funding. That includes $200,000 to the Solar & Energy Loan Fund, $120,000 to EV (electric vehicle) Readiness Assistance that would create an incentive for affordable housing developments, and $48,567 to the Engineering and Capital Improvements Department.
Councilmember Ed Montanari voiced his displeasure that administrators did not include funding for the city’s tree planting program in the recommendations. He relayed that he requested $800,000 for the initiative at a budget priority meeting earlier this year. According to city documents, the administration approved allocating $300,000 from the general fund.
“The city has over 1,200 tree removal permits that it approves every year,” said Montanari. “I want to at least keep up with planting new trees.”
Montanari said he wanted to conduct one-on-one meetings with staff members and discuss some issues in detail before making final decisions on how the city should spend the money.