SPECIAL REPORT: How the BP Oil Spill has shaped Northwest Florida, Ten Years Later

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PANAMA CITY BEACH, Fla. (WMBB) — On April 20th, 2010, an explosion in the Gulf of Mexico rocked the Southeast.

BP and Transocean’s Deepwater Horizon oil rig, located about 40 miles off the coast of Louisiana, exploded, killing eleven workers and leaking millions of gallons of oil into the Gulf of Mexico. 

That leak would continue on for 87 days, making the event the largest marine oil spill in United States history.

“It was an astonishing event and it caused tremendous fear and uncertainty all across Northwest Florida,” said Don Gaetz, who was a Florida State Senator at the time of the spill.

In Bay County, the effects were felt immediately, but it wasn’t because of any oil washing onshore. In fact, the beaches here looked a lot like they do now, clean and pristine, with the exception of a tarball here and there. However, in the days and weeks following the spill the local economy took a big hit.

“We saw a significant drop in our revenues that summer,” said Bay County Tourist Development Council Executive Director, Dan Rowe. “Visitors were staying away because they were afraid of the unknown because of all the massive coverage related to the spill.”

Normally a time tourists flocked to the area, bookings began to disappear. The national perception was that oil was everywhere, along all Gulf-bordering beaches.

But the local reality was much different.

“The news would be out here on the beach talking about tar and behind them was one of the most beautiful beaches in the world,” said Mike Thomas, a former Bay County Commissioner and Mayor of Panama City Beach.

In Walton County, it was a similar experience.

“The biggest impact was economic,” said Melinda Gates, the environmental coordinator for Walton County. She said that the economic hit taught a very important lesson.

“We have to learn about diversity when it comes to the economy,” she said.

This was a key takeaway for the entire region, as Northwest Florida’s economy is largely based around tourism and the military.

“When something bad happens in the Gulf or in the Pentagon, we don’t want our economy to come crashing down,” said Gaetz, who is currently the chairman of Triumph Gulf Coast.

After the spill, a lawsuit resulted in a $20.8 billion settlement between BP and others involved and the Gulf States. This is the largest settlement with a single entity in the history of the United States Justice Department.

Per the agreement, Florida will receive around $2 billion over 18 years, to help cover economic damages.

Triumph Gulf Coast oversees how 75 percent of that money is spent in the eight Northwest Florida counties that were disproportionally affected by the spill. Those counties include Escambia, Santa Rosa, Okaloosa, Walton, Bay, Gulf, Franklin and Wakulla.

“We’re using those dollars to fund projects that add more good-paying jobs to Northwest Florida,” said Gaetz.

Triumph has helped to fund major projects in the area, like Port Panama City’s East Terminal, as well as career and technical training programs across the Panhandle. 

“We need to recreate jobs and add new jobs so that it will make our economy stronger and more resilient,” said Gaetz.

For more information about Triumph Gulf Coast and the projects that have been funded through the non-profit corporation, click here.

Other money has been made available to local governments through the RESTORE Act (Resources and Ecosystems Sustainability, Tourist Opportunities, and Revived Economies of the Gulf Coast States Act). Through this act, Bay County will receive around $42 million over the course of about 17 years, to be used toward different environmental, economic and infrastructure projects.

For more information about the RESTORE Act and how those funds have been used so far, click here.

Bay County’s County Manager, Bob Majka, who was the deputy County Manager at the time of the spill, said there were other takeaways from that event that were applied in the aftermath of Hurricane Michael and are being applied now during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“A lot of lessons were learned on how to really not knee-jerk react to things, make data-based decisions, think out ahead, try to be ahead of the situation,” he said, adding that other lessons were learned about keeping constant communication channels open with the public for unexpected and less conventional disasters, such as an oil spill. Also, he said improvements were made to the logistics side of emergency operations which was heavily utilized during Hurricane Michael, and is now being used again during the pandemic as the community continues to navigate yet another unprecedented event.

He said through it all, the residents in this community have proven that they can and will overcome any challenge that comes their way.

“I think whether it’s the oil spill, whether it’s Michael or the pandemic, I think this community continues to exemplify what resiliency means,” said Majka.

Gaetz said that after a rocky 12 years starting with the 2008 recession, the best is yet to come for the region.

“I believe that the next 20 years in Northwest Florida will be more successful and more prosperous than the last 20 years,” said Gaetz.

Copyright 2020 Nexstar Broadcasting, Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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