BP buys Gulf Coast millions in gear with few strings attached

NEW ORLEANS (AP) — Tasers. Brand-new SUVs. A top-of-the-line iPad. A fully loaded laptop. In the year since the Gulf oil spill, officials along the coast have gone on a spending spree with BP money, dropping tens of millions of dollars on gadgets and other gear — much of which had little to do with the cleanup, an Associated Press investigation shows.

The oil giant 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.

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 14 SUVs. A parish president in Louisiana got herself a deluxe iPad, 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 instances, 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, the AP found in 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. BP announced Monday it would give another $30 million to help several northwest Florida counties promote tourism.

Some officials also lavished lucrative contracts on campaign donors and others. A Florida county commissioner’s girlfriend, for instance, opened up a public relations firm a few weeks after the spill and soon landed more than $14,000 of the tiny county’s $236,000 cut of BP cash for a month’s work.

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 an additional $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. The contracts require states to provide the company with at least an annual report on how the money has been used, BP spokeswoman Hejdi Feick said. But it’s unclear what consequences, if any, the states could face if they didn’t comply.

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 like corralling the oil, propping up tourism and covering overtime.

Much of the remaining chunk consists of equally justifiable expenses, but it is also riddled with millions of dollars’ worth of contracts and purchases with no clear connection to the spill, the AP found.

William Walker, executive director of the Mississippi Department of Marine Resources, said it is 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. We didn’t have any extra time. We needed to move when we moved.”

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