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Crist uses tobacco’s nemesis in oil spill

Tampa Tribune
Rob Shaw

TAMPA – Steve Yerrid loves the water. And he loves a good legal fight.

Now the Tampa-based lawyer who once kicked Big Tobacco’s legal butts has his sights set on the company responsible for the nation’s biggest oil spill ever.

Yerrid was named special counsel to Gov. Charlie Crist on Wednesday as the state tries to get a grip on its legal strategy against BP. The two are expected to meet in Orlando on Thursday.

Tar balls are washing ashore daily in the Panhandle. Statewide, hotel and motel owners are seeing cancellations. Fishermen have had their very livelihood threatened.

“Everything Florida knows as a way of life is on the line right now,” Yerrid said Thursday. “We are surrounded by the ocean. The oceans are now in peril.”

The growing gusher in the Gulf of Mexico has affected everyone from the chief executive officer of the fancy beach hotel down to the waiters and waitresses, the lawyer said. From the person who owns the seafood company to the men who man the boats and live paycheck to paycheck, he added.

“This is the time we have to protect all Floridians,” Yerrid said. “This is the time where everybody is included. From top to bottom, from Sector A to Sector Z, they are all going to be affected.”

For the 60-year-old lawyer, he admits that this upcoming battle with BP, not to mention Halliburton and Transocean, will be personal.

He has been in love with the water since he spent 90 minutes stuck in a U.S. Senate elevator decades ago with Jacques Cousteau. He spends much of his free time now on the water, whether it’s wrestling a 63-pound dolphin fish off the coast of Mexico or landing a 46-inch snook off Weedon Island.

“Our natural treasures have been put in jeopardy,” Yerrid said. “What I am going to be looking at is a much bigger picture. I am talking about a generational damage, a destruction of some of our legacy for our next generation, the worst of all worlds.”

He is especially concerned with what scientists at the University of South Florida have found: evidence of invisible plumes of oil underwater that could harm marine life for years to come.

“These grass beds and estuaries are so sensitive. We are not talking about a little bit of time,” Yerrid said. “We are talking about decades of recovery.”

And yet, Yerrid said, many people affected by the spill, or the threat of the spill, need help now.

“People are extremely frustrated,” he said. “There are a number of delays in the claims process. Do I think the system is working like it should? I don’t think so. People who are struggling need to be helped immediately.”

Yerrid was part of the legal team that won an $11 billion settlement with the tobacco industry in 1995. Two years before that, he was involved in some of the legal issues which stemmed from a collision in the Tampa Bay shipping channel that fouled Pinellas County beaches with oil.

The governor cited both of those experiences in announcing Yerrid’s appointment.

“With such devastating impacts to our coastal areas, we must explore and be prepared for all possible legal actions,” Crist wrote in a letter to Yerrid. “While the federal government has clearly defined BP as the legal responsible party, as Floridians, we must begin preparing now to secure the economic and environmental future of the Sunshine State.”

Yerrid said he will look everywhere to find the best legal team he can assemble to do battle with BP, Halliburton and Transocean. After all, he said, those companies will spare no expense as they prepare to face a mountain of litigation in upcoming months and years.

“We will leave no stone unturned. There will be no shortage of effort,” Yerrid said. “People want action, not words. I will every day make an effort to get some Floridians their lives back.”

Each day, the lawyer said, he wakes up and checks to see whether the oil has stopped flowing into his precious Gulf of Mexico. He spent four years at Louisiana State University, so his heart hurts at what he sees happening to the coastline there.

And he wonders what could happen to the coastline in his own backyard.

“Katrina is something that just happened in our world,” Yerrid said of the hurricane that devastated New Orleans in 2005. “This was a manmade disaster. And we’re going to get to the bottom of this whole deal.”

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