An Alabama Public Radio news feature, which is part of APR effort to address the "news desert" along the state's Gulf coast. APR recruited and trained veteran print journalists in Mobile and Baldwin counties to join our news team with stories from along the Gulf coast.
This month marks 10 years since the BP Gulf oil spill along the Alabama coast. The Deepwater Horizon disaster generated fines and lawsuit settlements that brought hundreds of millions of dollars to Alabama in the wake of the oil spill. How that money was spent, however, still rankles some Gulf Coast residents. They feel the money was intended for areas directly affected by the disaster.
Money from BP oil spill fines is paying part of the work as construction teams work to improve Highway 31 in Spanish Fort just east of Mobile Bay. Alabama got $1 billion from the settlement. Mobile and Baldwin counties’ cut was $74 million. That went to roadwork like this. The rest went to funding statewide projects.
“The biggest thing, I think, out of the whole thing that really is hard to digest is the amount of money that the state of Alabama got,” said Baldwin County commissioner Skip Gruber.
He was chairman of the commission when the BP settlement was being negotiated.
“And that money was supposed to be used on coastal projects,” he said. “Well, it didn’t end up that way. It ended up in state coffers.”
Gruber isn’t the only one unhappy with how the settlement money was doled out. Some like it because it helped the state as a whole. Others are outraged because those who suffered the brunt of the damage got so little. Even 10 years after the spill, Gruber sounds like it happened yesterday.
“It was upsetting,” he said. “Golly, there were so many things that we could have used the money for, projects that that we had that would have helped, but it didn’t happen. We had no voice about it. That’s the thing about it. We had no say-so. It was wham-bam and that was it. We were done wrong. It was irritating to see that happening.”
Two hours to the northeast, the feeling is different.
“It was probably one of the best things that we could have done. It was the most significant piece of legislation I passed in 26 years,” said State House member Steve Clouse.
He’s chairman of the House Ways and Means General Fund Committee, which prepares the state budget. He said the BP settlement helped everyone in Alabama.
“We finally came to an agreement and part of the money went to Mobile and Baldwin County for road work, a little over $100 million and $185 million went to Medicaid over a two year period and then we paid off $400 million to the Oil and Gas Trust Fund,” Clouse said.
The state owed almost $600 million to the Oil and Gas Trust Fund; $161 million of that would have been due this September. Medicaid also needed millions in funding. Clouse said the spill’s impact hit the entire state economy.
“When the oil spill happened, obviously it hurt Baldwin and Mobile counties a good bit,” Clouse said. “If you believe that they are a major contributor to the tax base in the state of Alabama, which they are, then obviously that affect the whole state, in our General Fund budget, in our education budget, sales tax, income tax, insurance premium tax, the whole nine yards."
The agreement didn’t leave either side happy.
“I was sort of in the middle,” Clouse said. “I had the Baldwin County and Mobile County delegations wanting to put most of the money toward those two counties and then the rest of the state was wanting to put it all toward the state services, so I was having to thread the needle to do some for Mobile and Baldwin and then also the rest toward the state services."
Gruber said local legislators should have done more to keep that money on the Gulf Coast.
“The sad part about it is in the legislation,” he said. “They didn’t really work hard to protect Mobile and Baldwin County. They could have took that money that was spent like that and demanded that it go to Mobile and Baldwin County because that’s where the damage was. It wasn’t nowhere else. North Alabama didn’t get any damage from it."
“It was a miracle to get any of it, because we were so outnumbered,” said State House member Steve McMillan.
His district includes the Baldwin County Gulf Coast. He said local legislators did all they could to keep any money in the bay areas.
“People don’t realize that we’re outnumbered about 7-1 as far as the number of legislators,” he said.
McMillan also said the split was not fair for the coast.
“Not at all really, when you look at where the damage was and who suffered the damage and who suffered the economic losses,” he said.
State house member Margie Wilcox represents Mobile and was in the middle of the negotiations that took place in the State Capitol.
“Some people on the floor had been told that an agreement had been reached and then I had to get up to the microphone and say ‘no, no agreement has been reached,” she said. “'We’re going to keep filibustering.’ There was a little frustration on the floor from us because we had never really shut the House down and we were determined to shut it down and keep it shut down."
Wilcox introduced a bill to split the money evenly between the coast and Montgomery.
“I prefiled the bill and it would have half the money go to the state and half go to the coastal area and people say ‘Oh my gosh, why are you asking for half,’ and I say, 'Because we would be lucky to get that,'” she said.
Wilcox’s strategy of “half a loaf is better than none” didn’t work out.
“As it ended up, we of course didn’t get near as much as what we’d wanted and the day the bond market closed, somehow the bond market was not in our favor, so you can’t help but shake your head,” she said.
Other funds were also diverted from the coast as well.
Ten years ago, Alabama Public Radio took its listeners to the 2010 Oil Spill Recovery Conference in Orange Beach. Local residents were there to voice their concerns, but they weren’t alone. Medical professionals were also worried about would happen next.
In 2010, Dr. Richard Powers was Medical Director of the Alabama Department of Mental Health. His job was to get a handle on the mental health impact of the spill. Back then, Powers said part of the problem was figuring out what to look for, although he had some ideas.
“I’d be looking for increased depression, substance abuse. I’d be looking for more conduct disorders in kids. I think, and I proposed this to BP, that one of the things we need to do is monitor dropout rates among kids, you know,” Powers said in 2010.
And, 10 years later, Powers said he’s still waiting for useful mental health data. He blames how the BP settlement money was spent.
“All of these dollars, all of these monies are being provided because of the suffering of the people on the coast, OK?” he said.
Specifically, Powers objects to over $350 million that went to the National Academy of Sciences.
“They didn’t suffer in Massachusetts. They didn’t suffer in Texas. They didn’t suffer really much in Florida because I went down to Pensacola,” Powers said. “There was not much. There was really no oil at all on the Panhandle. There was some on the Alabama-Florida state line. The places that took the hit were Mississippi, Louisiana and Alabama."
So, Powers’ contention is those settlement dollars should have paid for research there, or to build infrastructure.
“My last conversation with the people at the National Academy of Science, they seemed to feel like that money needed to be spent in the place that made the most sense for the country at large,” Powers said. “My take on it is, that money was earned by the suffering of our citizens and ought to be devoted to improving the quality of care and the quality of life for our citizens.”
There is one major source of funding that will go to the Gulf Coast over the next decade or so. In addition to the $1 billion BP paid the state for economic damage, Alabama will also get over an additional billion in civil fines. That money is for environmental restoration.
Patti McCurdy is Alabama’s state lands director. She’s been working on that project for the last several years.
“The challenge has always been how to get the right project funded through the right source of money,” McCurdy said. “That involves what type of project is likely to receive the particular federal support that we might need. As an example, all of the projects require best available science, so how do we get the science. If we had science gaps, how do we fill those? We have to do that to get approval still to spend the money."
McCurdy said that in the end, officials and residents need to remember that is that it’s not about the money.
“We talk money and we talk resources, but we’ve never lost sight of the fact that individuals lost their lives in the incident and we always want to remember those individuals, their families, but it’s also been important to us that there was a tremendous impact on our coast, to a way of life on our coast and it’s still an injury that will never be fully compensated because of the emotional impact and the economic impact to many on the coast that will never fully be restored," she said.