|A biologist released a sea turtle that had been hurt by the oil spill back into the gulf in October. The boat was bought with money from BP. (Gerald Herbert/ AP/ File)|
Gulf Coast states spent millions in BP grants
But review finds not all expenses related to oil spill
NEW ORLEANS — In the year since the Gulf of Mexico oil spill, officials along the coast have gone on a spending spree with
The oil company opened its checkbook while the crisis was still unfolding last spring and poured hundreds of millions of dollars into Gulf Coast communities with few strings attached, an Associated Press investigation found.
In sleepy Ocean Springs, Miss., reserve police officers got Tasers. The sewer department in nearby Gulfport bought a $300,000 vacuum truck that never sucked up a drop of oil. Biloxi, Miss., bought a dozen sport utility vehicles. A parish president in Louisiana got a top-of-the-line iPad, and her spokesman a $3,100 laptop. And a county in Florida spent $560,000 on rock concerts to promote its oil-free beaches.
In every case, communities said the new, more powerful equipment was needed to deal at least indirectly with the spill.
In many cases, though, the connection between the spill and the expenditures was remote, and lots of money wound up in cities and towns little touched by the goo that washed up on shore, according to records requested from more than 150 communities and dozens of interviews.
Florida’s tourism agency sent chunks of a $32 million BP grant as far away as Miami-Dade and Broward counties on the state’s east coast, which never saw oil from the disaster.
The April 20 explosion on the Deepwater Horizon rig in the Gulf of Mexico killed 11 workers and spawned the nation’s worst offshore oil spill. As BP spent months trying to cap the well and contain the spill, cities and towns along the coast from Louisiana to Florida worried about the toll on their economies — primarily tourism and the fishing industry — as well as the environmental impact.
All told, BP PLC says it has paid state and local governments more than $754 million as of March 31, and has reimbursed the federal government for another $694 million.
BP set few conditions on how states could use the money, stating only that it should go to mitigate the effects of the spill.
Some of the money BP doled out to states and municipalities hasn’t been spent yet, but the AP’s review accounts for more than $550 million of it. More than $400 million went toward clear needs such as corralling the oil, propping up tourism, and covering overtime. Much of the remaining chunk consists of equally justifiable expenses, but it’s also riddled with millions of dollars’ worth of contracts and purchases with no clear connection to the spill.
William Walker, executive director of the Mississippi Department of Marine Resources, said it’s clear now that communities bought more equipment than they wound up needing. But he doesn’t regret handing out BP’s money freely.
“At the time we were making these decisions, there were millions of gallons of oil going into the Gulf of Mexico with no clear idea when it would stop,’’ Walker said. “We didn’t wait. We tried to get [grant money] into circulation as quickly as possible.’’
When oil from the ruptured Macondo well began to lap at Louisiana’s marshes, BP deployed an army of workers to sop it up and hired contractors who specialize in disaster cleanup.
Even with BP and the federal government taking the lead, many communities weren’t content to rely on equipment they had.
Charlotte Randolph, Lafourche Parish president, billed BP for an iPad, saying she needed it in addition to her parish-paid BlackBerry to communicate with officials during the crisis. But she didn’t buy the iPad until Aug. 26, a month and a half after the well was capped and several weeks after the federal government said much of the oil had been skimmed, burned off, dispersed, or dissolved.
Lafourche Parish spokesman Brennan Matherne, who bought a new
Biloxi, home to a strip of casinos overlooking the Mississippi Sound, bought 14 sport utility vehicles and pickup trucks, two boats, two dump trucks, and a backhoe loader with its $1.4 million share of BP grant money.
In Alabama, the state Emergency Management Agency distributed $30 million to local governments without rejecting a single request.