Recovery: BP oil spill

Five Pensacola Bay projects would benefit from oil money

Download the PDF: RESTORE projectsRESTORE projectsOne day after Escambia County was awarded an $11 million grant to improve water quality in long-polluted Bayou Chico, state authorities announced that the bayou and other Panhandle environmental projects are contenders for at least another $20 million.

The proposed funding would expand wastewater reclamation on Pensacola Beach, build oyster beds and living shorelines near Pensacola Naval Air Station and in East Bay, removed polluted sediment from the headwaters of Bayou Chico, and convert hundreds of homes near the bayou from septic to sewer.

It’s the latest development in the multi-faceted process seeded by criminal and civil penalties paid by the companies involved in the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill, which sent more than 200 million gallons of crude oil into Gulf Coast waterways and estuaries.

“From time to time, it’s going to feel like it’s all happening at once, because the money is coming from so many different funds,” said Escambia County Commissioner Grover Robinson.

“We’re very happy with what the state has submitted,” said Keith Wilkins, the county’s community and environment director. Wilkins and Robinson this week are attending the Florida Association of Counties legislative conference in Tampa. “A lot of counties down here are not happy with what they’re getting, so we’re feeling pretty good.”

The $11 million grant for Bayou Chico announced Tuesday will come from the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, a federally chartered organization charged with making grants for environmental needs, including money from criminal fines paid in the oil spill case.

The $20 million, if approved, would come from a much larger civil-penalties pool. TransOcean Ltd., the company that operated the oil rig that exploded, has paid about $1 billion in fines. Ultimately, BP, the global oil company held most responsible for the disaster, could pay billions more in penalties, once a federal court makes a final ruling next year.

Escambia and Santa Rosa counties could stand to gain as much as $316 million for environmental restoration projects, depending on the scope of the court’s ruling.

For now, the Gulf Coast Ecosystem Restoration Council, made up of top officials from the five states affected by the oil spill, is under pressure to start spreading the wealth from the TransOcean payments. The council set a deadline for proposed projects this week, and the Florida Department of Environmental Protection announced Wednesday that it had settled on proposals for five major watersheds, involving 20 separate projects.

Those projects, including the five in the Pensacola Bay area, will compete with ideas pitched by the four other affected states. A decision could come next spring, followed by a 90-day public comment period. If approved, the money may not arrive before late summer 2015, Wilkins said.

Even if the projects submitted by the state this week are not funded in this phase, they and others can be resubmitted later as more BP money becomes available, Robinson said. County officials are hoping to leverage as much funding as possible, making subsequent grants work with existing projects, he said.

The five projects could make major changes in the Pensacola Bay watershed. The work would include:

— Eight miles of “living shorelines” along the eastern shore of East Bay in Santa Rosa County. The project would be one of the largest living shoreline projects in the region, and would be built in phases, with early work to include a two-mile stretch of oyster beds and aquatic vegetation. Later phases would extend the reefs and breakwaters northward into Blackwater Bay and other parts of East Bay. The proposed funding would also allow monitoring, permitting and engineering and design of the reefs.

— More than four miles of living shorelines near Bayou Grande and all around Pensacola NAS in southwest Pensacola Bay. For years, parts of the shoreline here have experienced erosion, and once-rich habitat has been depleted. The project would build submerged rock and oyster breakwaters, which would double as a security measure for the naval station by making it difficult for boats to come ashore at Barrancas Beach, on the south side of NAS, Wilkins said.

Another phase would build 2,000 linear feet of oyster reef and rock breakwaters and 25 acres of marsh adjacent to White Island, a spit of sand near the mouths of Bayou Grande and Davenport Bayou in Warrington.

— Expansion of the reclaimed wastewater system on Pensacola Beach. The Emerald Coast Utilities Authority already treats the municipal sewage from Santa Rosa Island to the point at which it can be reused for irrigation and industrial purposes. About 80,000 gallons a day go to irrigate the greenery along Via de Luna Drive, the main drag on the beach. With the expansion, more than 475,000 gallons a day will be reused for public areas and for private property owners who request it, said ECUA spokeswoman Nathalie Bowers.

The utility already has begun plans to add storage tanks and pumping facilities. The oil spill money would allow the extension of what’s known as “purple pipe” supply lines all across the island. The project will reduce the amount of freshwater ECUA pumps from the aquifer below ground, which will help prevent saltwater infiltration into the aquifer, will reduce the amount of treated but still-nutrient-heavy wastewater discharged into the sound, and will save money, Bowers said.

— The most expensive project would be extension of the municipal sewerage system into the Beach Haven neighborhood, on the south side of Bayou Chico. Most of the properties in the area are now on septic tanks, some of which are decades old and leach into the groundwater and stormwater, the proposal points out. The plan would connect many homes and businesses to the sewer system, and would build additional retention ponds and facilities to treat stormwater runoff before it enters the bayou, Wilkins said.

— Dredging parts of Maggie’s Ditch, the northeast branch of Bayou Chico, and Jackson Branch, the northwest feeder creek. Both of these have been heavily contaminated with industrial discharge over many decades. The polluted sediment would be removed and transported to appropriate landfill facilities, Wilkins said.

The projects submitted by the governor’s office were refined after months of public meetings and consultation with local officials, Wilkins said. Still, some local environmentalists have expressed concerns.

Building oyster beds along the eastern shore of East Bay may have little chance of success, because of the shifting sand bottom of the bay and the dearth of other aquatic life that help support oysters, said Skeet Lores, a retired environmental scientist. If oyster beds would grow at that location, some would already be found there, he suggested.

Conversion from septic should be extended to the south side of Beach Haven, where tanks leak into Bayou Grande, said Barbara Albrecht, president of the local Bream Fishermen’s Association.

The final submissions, along with the $11 million grant for Bayou Chico, though, are a sound start.

“At first blush, my take is that, yes, it will be a good start on Bayou Chico restoration,” said Jessica Koelsch, Florida policy specialist with the National Wildlife Federation, a private environmental group.