It may be the most important seat in town. Or, possibly, the most irrelevant. Or, worse, a sham.
When RESTORE dollars dump upon Escambia County’s table, there will be one person charged with ensuring the region’s environmental concerns are addressed in the wake of the 2010 oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. That one voice will sit amongst eight others on the county’s RESTORE Act advisory committee.
The environment is lucky to have a designated seat at the table at all. The Escambia County Commissioners have made it clear that the coming financial windfall should not be focused on the environment.
“The focus should be on economic development and infrastructure related to economic development,” said Commission Chairman Gene Valentino during a recent meeting. “The committee we choose has to be a committee that obviously understands that philosophy. We should have appointees on this committee that understand that that’s where we’re going. Otherwise, we’ll be countermanding everything that they bring to us.”
This philosophy has raised some eyebrows in the local environmental community.
“Go with your Spidey-sense,” suggested Barbara Albrecht, watershed coordinator with the University of West Florida’s Center for Environmental Diagnostics and Bioremediation (CEDB).
Albrecht is also the president of the Bream Fisherman Association—perhaps the oldest environmental group in the area—and a member of such organizations as the Audubon Society and Native Plant Society. She’s concerned that the Clean Water Act penalty money realized as a result of the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill, an environmental disaster, will not go to address environmental concerns.
“They’re looking at it like Santa Claus brought us a shit load of money—how exciting!” Albrecht said.
‘Everybody’s Got a Name’
Soon, BP is expected to settle with the U.S. government over the 2010 oil spill. The RESTORE Act ensures that 80 percent of the Clean Water Act fines stay in the Gulf Coast region.
That 80 percent will be divvied up among the Gulf states and the federal government. By the time it shakes down to the county level, Escambia’s pot is expected to be between $100 and $200 million dollars.
The money is meant to address the impacts of the 2010 spill, both environmental and economic. In Escambia, the county commission has decided to form an advisory committee to assess possible uses for the funds and insulate the commissioners themselves from political pressure.
The advisory committee has nine members. Seats are designated for the financial, business, transportation and governmental communities as well as for a representative from the city of Pensacola, someone representing environmental concerns and two citizen at-large seats.
While commissioners will handpick people for most of the seats, they have tasked the local environmental community with selecting someone amongst themselves to represent their concerns. The instructions were loose: y’all decide.
“That was it,” said Keith Wilkins, Escambia County Community and Environment Director. “The rest of this we’re just kind of making up as we go along.”
Since the commission’s directive, Wilkins has been talking with local environmental organizations. He’s not finding much consensus among the groups.
“Right now, it’s kind of like the Wild West,” Wilkins said. “Everybody’s got a name.”
A meeting is scheduled for Jan. 7 for the environmental community to discuss the matter in a public forum. If a representative cannot be agreed upon, a list of candidates to choose from will be presented to the county commission later in the month.
Wilkins knows the environmental seat is a big deal. Hoping the Jan. 7 meeting goes smoothly, the director is planning a dry run with his staff.
“We’re actually going to do a rehearsal,” Wilkins said. “I’ll run the meeting and they can act as the citizens and they’ll punch holes in what I’m doing.”
A few days after Christmas, Wilkins sent an email out to the thirty-something organizations the county has identified as members of the local environmental community. It was a list of the nominees thus far—“just to get the grey matter thinking after Christmas dinner!”
As Wilkins had said, there was no consensus.
“It’s going to be pretty difficult, quite frankly,” said Mary Gutierrez, executive director of Earth Ethics, Inc. and chair of the League of Women Voters’ Natural Resource Committee.
Gutierrez said that the individual organizations tend to push for their own candidates. Wilkins is predicting a crowded “primary.” There were already 10 nominees listed in the director’s holiday email.
“I see almost like a primary,” he explained. “I can see probably a primary and probably a secondary primary.”
Regardless of their nominee preference, many of the groups are aiming for the same target: making sure the environment gets hers.
“We hope to get a good representative that will make our environment and our ecosystem a top priority,” said Elaine Sargent of 350 Pensacola. “Not just short-term gains—putting sands on the shore and that kind of thing.”
When asked about priorities, representatives from the groups listed off environmental assessment and restoration work. They talked about water quality, tackling the area’s stormwater issues and land acquisition in order to prevent development in sensitive areas.
At the very least, they’re hoping that RESTORE money doesn’t go toward projects that further damage the environment.
“It would kind of be counter-active if we chose projects that would have a negative impact,” said Chasidy Hobbs, an instructor with UWF’s Environmental Studies department and coastkeeper for Emerald Coastkeepers during the time of the 2010 spill and response.
Hobbs also chairs the city of Pensacola’s Environmental Advisory Board. That board has requested that the city appoint local environmental advocate Christian Wagley as its representative on the county RESTORE committee. Several environmental groups have also honed in on Wagley.
“We’re backing Christian,” said 350’s Sargent, describing the nominee as “the perfect choice.”
Albrecht would also like to see Wagley on the advisory board. She feels he has “a really good chance of carrying the torch forward for us.”
“There’s only a handful of people that I can think of that I would want representing the groups I’m involved with,” she said. “Christian is just right on up there.”
Wagley is among the 10 nominees listed in Wilkins email. Other names included Jim Cox, president of Pensacola Beach Advocates, and Dr. Richard Snyder, a UWF professor and director of UWF’s CEDB.
“It kind of runs the full spectrum,” Wilkins said. “From Ph.D.s to environmental advocates.”
One name that wasn’t in Wilkins’ email: Donnie McMahon, the Emerald Coastkeepers’ choice for the advisory board’s environmental seat. He’s a prominent member of the community, owns an insurance firm and has just recently completed his term as chairman of the Pensacola Bay Area Chamber of Commerce.
“The fellow sitting in the seat of the environmental chair is a very, very important guy,” said Sava Varazo, the new Coastkeeper.
Varazo said McMahon was well versed and networked in the region’s business community as well as being a passionate environmentalist. He said the Coastkeepers’ nominee is well suited to work with the other members of the county’s RESTORE committee.
“I think it’s going to take a particular kind of person, not just an environmentalist,” Varazo said, advising against selecting a “fuzzy environmentalist” for the seat. “Their hearts in the right place, but do they have the experience?”
The approach being taken by the Emerald Coastkeepers jives nicely with the philosophy laid out by the county commissioners, but it strikes others as odd and cold. In fact, simply mentioning the organization’s name throws an awkward lull into some conversations.
“It’s the fox in charge of the hen house over there,” said Albrecht. “You need to look deeper.”
‘A Green Side’
A few days before Christmas, Varazo was out in the water. Braving the cold for some holiday mullet.
“I got family that comes from up north and all they think about is fried mullet,” the Coastkeeper said.
Varazo’s not thinking about mullet. He’s thinking of that environmental seat on the county’s RESTORE committee.
“I’m dreaming about it every night,” he said. “They’ve got to put the right guy in there.”
Varazo feels that whoever sits in that seat must be well-rounded, savvy and realistic. He knows the commissioners are looking for economic development and infrastructure projects and he thinks environmental interests may have better prospects piggybacking on such projects.
“I think the projects that are going to get through are the ones that get the most bang for the buck—I’ve been around enough politicians to know that’s how they think,” Varazo said. “You’ve gotta convince these people. If you can’t think like them and you can’t walk the walk and talk the talk, good luck with getting an environmental project through.”
The Emerald Coastkeepers did not consult with other area environmental groups when choosing a nominee—“we just did our own in-house thing”—and Varazo said he wasn’t keen on the commissioners’ instructions that local groups collectively select a representative.
“Their formula’s intent is to get someone the environmental community is behind,” he said. “My concern is that may not be the guy that can get your project done—just because there’s a person that’s liked by everyone in the environmental community does not mean you’re gonna get your project through.”
Members of the environmental community, meanwhile, expressed concern about the Emerald Coastkeepers.
“I don’t know if I actually would discuss it with them,” said Gutierrez, when asked if any of the groups she’s involved with had conferred with the organization about the county’s committee. “They have not really done much for this area.”
Hobbs, who said she is no longer involved with the organization, wasn’t any more encouraging.
“The only thing I’ve heard out of them this past year is coming out in support of having dogs on the beach,” the former coastkeeper said.
Albrecht is more direct.
“I’m just not getting a warm-fuzzy,” she said of the group.
The BFA president raised concerns about Coastkeepers at-time inactive past and said the addition of Varazo—with his governmental experience and county ties—was not a good sign.
Earlier this year, the Emerald Coastkeepers appeared adrift. There offices had been closed, phones turned off. A spokesman with the broader organization—Waterkeeper Alliance—said the local chapter was non-operational.
This fall, Varazo entered the scene preaching the gospel of collaboration, the importance of working with the development community. Previously he spent time with the Florida Department of Environmental Protection, as well as with the county’s Chips Kirschenfeld—also a Coastkeepers board member—in the Escambia County Water Quality and Land Management Division.
Where some people may think of his connections and experience as compromising, Varazo sees them as useful. Where some may view his path as misguided, he believes it’s realistic.
Varazo said he wants to see RESTORE money go to address environmental concerns—he emphasizes water-quality issues—and understands whoever ends up sitting in the environmental seat may have to be satisfied with fighting on the fringes for scraps, crumbs from the bigger picture.
“I think it would be a tragedy to use environment to get the money and then go after just infrastructure or just jobs,” Varazo said. “If you pick the right person it can go hand in hand.”
Varazo’s train of thought is similar to the county-preferred philosophy.
“Everything’s got a green side,” Wilkins said, suggesting that infrastructure and economic development projects would offer environmental opportunities. “We can build a building—say a spec building for the tech park—and that building can be LEED certified.”
Hobbs has a similar philosophy. Except backward, and inside-out.
“We keep having this silly argument—we can do environment, we can do economic development,” she said. “We can do both.”
Instead of infrastructure and development projects offering peripheral environmental opportunities, Hobbs views environmental efforts themselves as bettering the area’s economic horizons. She views the region’s environmental and economic outlooks as intertwined and believes Escambia’s long-term environmental health is the linchpin in its economic success.
“People understood that quite well back in 2010, we have a short memory,” Hobbs said, recalling the layers of fear that gripped the area as it waited to weather the spill’s impact. “Just the thought of oil on our beaches was enough to send our economy into a tailspin.”
With that in mind, some members of the environmental community are asking the county commissioners to remember why Clean Water Act money will be coming into the region in the first place. They would like to see RESTORE money spent on environmental concerns and not treated like a stimulus party.
“It’s kind of like giving out Christmas gifts,” Albrecht said, “and having no concept of why you’re giving out a gift.”
RESTORE ADVISORY COMMITTEE, ENVIRONMENTAL SEAT SELECTION
WHEN: 5:30 p.m., Monday, Jan. 7
WHERE: County Central Office, 3363 W. Park Place
DETAILS: Escambia County Community and Environment Department, 595-4988