TALLAHASSEE - As the one-year anniversary of the Deepwater Horizon oil disaster approaches, the Florida Panhandle got a $30 million boost from BP to help lure tourists back to the seven counties hardest hit by the April 20 oil well blowout in the Gulf of Mexico.
Flanked by BP officials and Northwest Florida lawmakers and tourism officials, Gov. Rick Scott announced the agreement with the oil giant Monday morning, calling it a "very small step on the road to recovery."
But the state could be leaving millions more on the table by walking away from a deadline next week to join a lawsuit to decide how much Transocean, the rig owner, can limit what it pays claimants and how much of the blame lies with other companies involved in the blow-out, including BP.
"My goal is to not have to go through litigation and make sure that BP does the right thing," Scott told reporters later Monday. At the morning press conference, Scott praised BP for the money, which is to be aimed at helping the region bounce back this tourist season after last year's disaster chased oil-wary visitors away.
"This is a great day for Florida. I'm very comfortable that my discussion so far with BP is that they're going to continue to do the right thing," said Scott, who has done away with the state's oil spill task force created by Gov. Charlie Crist.
The latest promise from BP, which will be distributed over six months in $10 million increments starting in about two weeks, brings to $62 million the company has given to Florida for tourism marketing. BP also gave an additional $20 million to test and market Florida seafood.
"We recognize how important tourism is to the economy of Florida and especially North Florida," said BP Senior Vice President Luke Keller. "We've worked very hard with local officials there to make sure the beaches are being cleaned upI can report the beaches are cleaned up and ready for the tourist season."
Scott's staff said he also is working with BP to collect some of the state's lost taxes caused by the drop in tourism in the aftermath of the spill. Those lost taxes have contributed to a projected $3.82 billion state deficit in the coming year's budget.
But despite urging Monday from U.S. Rep. Kathy Castor, a Tampa Democrat, to have Florida join the Transocean lawsuit, Scott said he'd prefer not to.
"My goal is to try to work with BP so we don't end up in litigation," he said.
Transocean, the rig owner and original defendant in the case, is trying to limit its liability for the disaster to $27 million. But all of the other entities, including BP, are now part of the lawsuit, which will determine what portion of the fault is Transocean's and could also decide how much of the fault lies with BP or other companies involved in the massive oil disaster.
U.S. District Judge Charles Barbier in Louisiana has set April 20, the anniversary of the oil well blowout, as the deadline for affected parties to join as plaintiffs in the case. Alabama has joined the case, and Louisiana is expected to. Several Florida school districts and local governments have also joined.
Castor wrote Scott Monday urging him to also file a claim for Florida taxpayers.
"While distinct from the claims of individuals and small businesses and the fines and penalties BP will pay under other causes of action, Florida's claim against BP must be presented and pursued doggedly," she wrote. "I urge you to take action quickly to protect Florida taxpayers."
Attorney General Pam Bondi, however, contends that joining the lawsuit could put at risk the ability of Florida and other parties to have claims paid by either the U.S. Coast Guard under the Oil Pollution Act or BP claims czar Ken Feinberg, who is in charge of the $20 billion Gulf Coast Claims Facility.
Bondi plans to caution Florida businesses, governments and individuals against joining the lawsuit.
But Fred Levin, whose law firm is one of four appointed by Barbier to represent hundreds of plaintiffs in the case, said Florida should join the case or otherwise risks losing out on what could be a large settlement.
"I would certainly think so," Levin said. "Transocean could be responsible for a great deal of this tragedy," Levin said.
Palm Beach Post Staff writer John Kennedy contributed to this story.
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