PENSACOLA, Fla. (AP) - Three years after the massive Gulf oil spill fouled Florida Panhandle beaches, millions of dollars in restitution are being used to build new piers and boat ramps and restore sand dunes.
 
Though some wanted more money for their communities, panhandle political leaders and residents are happy that the state and eight counties are about to get a share of the money paid by BP and the companies that made the drilling equipment that failed in April 2010.
 
Louisiana, Texas, Mississippi and Alabama are also getting chunks of the proceeds.  The federal government recently released the first billion dollars through the Oil Pollution Act, which assesses damages against companies responsible for spills, and billions more could be coming through the act and other court hearings. In addition, BP says it has already spent $3.4 billion in Florida for claims and settlements, tourism promotion and other expenses.
 
"There were political compromises - in the end, we were all trying to get the most we could for our communities," said Escambia County Commissioner Grover Robinson IV, who helped developed the distribution plan for Florida's share of the funds.
 
"The formula is a political formula. Every state and county would like to have more money for their own projects but we have to work together," said Robinson, whose district includes Pensacola Beach. It saw heavy oil at the height of the spill and continues to see tiny tar balls in the surf line.
 
Escambia County, the only Florida county to see heavy oil on its beaches, needed the help of the state's other counties to secure its portion of the state's funding, Robinson said. Some of funds will be divided statewide while some will be distributed based on the amount of oil that washed ashore.
 
Texas saw no oil from the Deepwater Horizon but will get a share of one fund for Gulf Coast states. Other Gulf Coast states needed Texas' political pull to secure the funding, Robinson said.
 
Regardless of how the deal happened, Bahen Privett is just happy it's done. He says the store he manages, Pensacola Kayak and Sail, suffered tremendous losses after the spill as its customers stayed away. But now, $2.2 million from the oil spill restitution is paying for the construction of a public-use boat ramp and park near his shop, which should improve business.
 
"The oil spill wasn't positive, but this is a positive thing," Privett said.
 
The billions from the Oil Restitution Act could be small when compared to damage payments mandated by a New Orleans judge in a trial that is underway. The judge will determine an amount to fine BP and other responsible parties for each barrel of oil that flowed from the blown-out well. Under the Clean Water Act, a polluter can be forced to pay a minimum of $1,100 per barrel of spilled oil. The fines nearly quadruple to about $4,300 a barrel for companies found grossly negligent, meaning BP could be on the hook for nearly $18 billion.
 
Under the complicated formula agreed upon by the five Gulf Coast states, Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and Florida will equally split 35 percent of the total fine and the remaining 65 percent will go to various ecosystem and environmental projects throughout the region.  In Florida, eight counties that had the largest impact from the spill will split 75 percent of the state's share.
 
The popular Okaloosa County tourist town of Destin is planning projects that include harbor and transportation improvements, land purchases and improved water access for the public.
 
"I believe the compensation will be appropriate, if we get it. If what is supposed to happen happens, I think it will be fair. But we haven't gotten any money yet," Mayor Sarah Seevers said.  "We especially want to do things to improve access to the water for people who live here and pay taxes year round," she said.
 
Much of what BP pays will be used to protect the long-term health of the entire Gulf Coast ecosystem, environmental experts say. Although the Florida Everglades saw no oil, funding to restore the vast marshland is important because it is breeding ground for birds and fish that populate the entire Gulf.
 
Eric Draper, executive director of Audubon Florida, said projects to improve sea grasses and other natural vegetation will provide habitat for wildlife throughout the region.
 
"You have to think of it as not just the beaches that were impacted in Pensacola.  The birds are not just Pensacola birds; they are birds that migrate all over the Gulf Coast. A bird habitat in Tampa would ensure you have a population of pelicans that will balance those harmed in the spill. A tarpon you catch in Pensacola today may have been in Tampa last year," he said.

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