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RESTORE money continues to flow into Gulf Coast recovery projects

Funds from the RESTORE Act helped establish the Pensacola & Perdido Bays Estuary Program among other projects on the Gulf Coast.
Pensacola & Perdido Bays Estuary Program
Funds from the RESTORE Act helped establish the Pensacola & Perdido Bays Estuary Program among other projects on the Gulf Coast.

A dozen years after the BP oil spill made a mess along the Gulf Coast, some of the panels created to disburse RESTORE Act funding continue their work.

The RESTORE Act allocates 80% of the amount of any Clean Water Act fines from the 2010 BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill to the Gulf Coast. Santa Rosa County’s RESTORE Advisory Committee met earlier this month.

“There’s certainly a lot of progress that has been happening in Santa Rosa County — it’s been over 10 years — but the projects are now finally being funded,” said Naisy Dolar, the county’s grant director.

She says the committee got updates on a dozen ongoing projects. Of them, five are underway, two are complete, and one is in the application process. The total cost: $16.5 million.

“An oyster habitat restoration project; and [an oyster] shell recycling program,” said Dolar. “We’re paving roads to decrease sediments flowing into our sensitive waters, as well as all the planned improvements for the Blackwater Heritage State Trail.”

In all, $29 million is available to Santa Rosa until 2031. Dolar says projects in the beginning phases include expanding the Tiger Point Wastewater Facility.

“One more project that is underway is Yellow River Marsh State Park’s preserve habitat restoration, in order to ensure that we can decrease the potential of wildfire by providing mechanical treatment to reduce the fuel within that preserve.”

As those projects roll on, Dolar says others are under consideration. But she adds that each faces a rather stringent vetting process under priorities set up by the local RESTORE panel.

“Those priorities are legacy projects, regional impact projects that will leverage resources and to help with potential funding in the future,” she said. “And we’ll then make recommendations to the board, which is expected to be towards the end of this year and the beginning of 2023.”

Under RESTORE, 75% of Florida’s allocation comes directly to the eight disproportionately impacted panhandle counties — Santa Rosa among them, which gets 10% of the settlement.

“The U.S. Treasury set forth that percentage amount; what changes is the amount of deposits that are made year after year — which right now has been about $2 million every year until 2031.”

The other shares include 25% for Escambia County, which totaled about $70 million — the lion’s share of the money going to the hardest-hit counties.

“Each April, the county draws down another $4 million; so there still is probably $50 million left in that funding that has not been drawn down yet,” said Taylor "Chips" Kirschenfeld, Escambia County’s senior scientist.

The RESTORE Act created five buckets of money for oil spill recovery. The money coming straight to the counties is from bucket No. 1. Buckets 2 to 5, said Kirschenfeld, are competitive.

“The Bucket-2 funds are managed by the Restoration Council, made up of appointees from federal government agencies,” he said. “We’ve been very fortunate to be able to receive some of those Bucket-2 funds from that competitive grant process.”

The Escambia County Commission selected 10 projects initially from recommendations by the RESTORE advisory committee — which disbanded in 2016 — and since then, the list has grown to about 30. Kirschenfeld says more projects are planned, as they’ve been lucky to have leveraged the $20 million “Bucket 1” to about $100 million.

“That’s about a 5-1 leverage; and the $20 million has mostly been on design and engineering,” Kirschenfeld said. “And then we — staff — have been able to go out and seek additional grant funding from other sources to actually do the construction and implementation.”

The projects selected in Escambia County to date, says Kirschenfeld, are divided into three categories: natural resources, recreation and economic recovery.

“The Carpenter Creek and Bayou Texar master plan; the Perdido Key and Pensacola Beach,” he began. “Pensacola International Airport, ST Aerospace, septic-to-sewer projects, [and] a new Pensacola Bay living shoreline project.”

RESTORE money was also used to stand up the Pensacola-Perdido Bay estuary program, which Kirschenfeld says will involve stakeholders and communities to provide input on future projects.