Oil Spill 2010: Disaster Provided Lessons for Fighting COVID-19

Jun 19, 2020

Tar balls on Pensacola Beach July 1,2010.
Credit Geoff Livingston/Flickr

In 2010, Grover Robinson was serving his year as chairman of the Escambia County Commission, and representing the district containing Pensacola Beach. On April 20, 2010, the Deepwater Horizon exploded off Louisiana, killing 11 and sending crude oil into the Gulf of Mexico.

“I don’t think anybody in our part of the world really focused on it too much,” said Robinson. “We thought, ‘Hey, there’s something out there that’s not going to be that big of a deal and they’re going to get it taken care of.”

About a week later, Robinson met with County Attorney Alison Rogers about the spill, and that led to what he calls “the smartest decision” he ever made.

“We were talking and I said, ‘Why don’t you read the Oil Pollution Act and give me kind of a summary of what we can do?’” Robinson said. “I tell people the rest of the response, and everything we did in setting up RESTORE and everything else really came out of going back to that April. We declared a state of emergency before the state of Florida.”

By the first of May, officials – from Gov. Charlie Crist to Robinson and others – were concerned that the damage would parallel that of the 1989 Exxon Valdez spill off the coast of Alaska.

“We were just going to have this just black waves coming up and permanently destroying all of what we enjoy so much here along the Gulf of Mexico,” Robinson said. “Obviously, it didn’t happen right way; we started getting tar balls about May, we did receive our first heavy oiling.”

After seeing the oil floating in the water, Robinson said it was everything they feared the most – and then they got to work.

“There were a lot of things we were afraid of; we didn’t understand things and that made it even scarier,” said Robinson. “But once we began to engage it and figure out what we could do, the people who could make a difference in working. It didn’t happen overnight, but you know by the end of 2010, we had really removed much of that oiling. And really, most of the tar balls were gone a couple of years later.”

After years of litigation, Federal Judge Carl Barbier in New Orleans granted final approval in 2016, to an estimated 20 billion dollar settlement for the five Gulf States – Florida, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, and Texas. In 2017, the RESTORE Act was signed, giving a blueprint for disbursing the funds. Robinson was named to the RESTORE board.

“So we began to try to put together an idea of what we thought would be a way it could come back to the community,” said Robinson. “We knew we would have to work with our sister counties; we banded together [and] were the only place that saw a sizable chunk that was specifically designated to come back to local areas. It was a lot of work, but we got there.”

Escambia County was in line to get about $70 million from the Gulf Coast Restoration Trust Fund, and a portion of $36 million in annual payments through 2031 in Natural Resource Damage Assessment, or NRDA, money earmarked for projects in Florida.

The money would be most welcome. Deepwater Horizon occurred at the worst possible time for Northwest Florida — just as the tourist season was cranking up — throwing wrench into the local economy.

“We truly lost an entire season; there were a lot of small businesses that went out of business,” Robinson said. “But I do believe that it positioned us well to think of some things a little bit differently. Much of it was finally beginning to realize that having a good economy and having a good environment are not mutually exclusive; we can do both, we just have to work at it a little bit harder.” 

Photographer Geoff Livingston shares this photo of a tar ball on Pensacola Beach from July 1, 2010.
Credit Geoff Livingston/Flickr

You live and you learn. Some of the lessons from the spill, says now-Pensacola Mayor Grover Robinson, are being applied in the city’s response to today’s coronavirus pandemic.

“A lot of those lessons would be a lot — at least to me — scarier and more difficult going through COVID if we had not have had Deepwater Horizon,” said the mayor. “I think we learned a lot of things from Deepwater Horizon – how to work through regional tragedies like this. Having that experience was invaluable, to go through this [pandemic] experience.”

It was a long and arduous process after the BP oil spill, but the community came out of it, said Robinson. And he’s optimistic the same will happen in the current fight against COVID-19.

“I’m not saying the virus is totally gone and things may happen; but I don’t think we’re going to have to take the same draconian measures,” said Robinson. “And I think we’ve figured out some things how to do better with our businesses. And I think overall the economy has substance behind it, so I do think it will bounce back. And were working to see that bounce-back here in Pensacola as soon as possible.”