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Coastal director says BP must pay to the max

23rd July 2012   ·   0 Comments

By Susan Buchanan
Contributing Writer

Garret Graves, chairman of Louisiana’s Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority, said last week “we will not allow BP to walk out of here, wiping its hands” of its responsibilities. He spoke at a July 18 forum sponsored by the City of New Orleans and The National Wildlife Federation on protecting the region from the spill’s aftermath, weather threats and a shrinking coastline.

Speakers discussed the RESTORE Act, signed into law by President Obama on July 6. Under it, 80 percent of the Clean Water Act penalties that BP must pay will be devoted to restoration in Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Florida and Texas.

Wes Kungel, regional representative for Senator Mary Landrieu, said CWA penalties against BP should total between $5 billion and $21.5 billion based on fines of anywhere from $1,100 to $4,300 per barrel and an estimated 4.9 million barrels spilled. Kungel didn’t mention it but BP may also have to pay for methane gas that leaked from its well. BP won’t have to pay up for awhile, however, because the levying of CWA fines awaits the outcome of a federal trial starting in New Orleans in January, or a possible settlement with the company before that, Kungel said.

CWA penalties are only part of what BP will have to fork over to the Gulf. Other fines might be levied under the Endangered Species, Marine Mammal Protection and Migratory Bird Treaty Acts. With those penalties and Natural Resource Damage Assessment or NRDA compensation, “we could be looking at as much as $130 billion in money from BP,” Graves said. Under the NRDA, governed by the Oil Pollution Act of 1990, Louisiana will receive compensation from a process requiring that natural resources harmed by the spill be restored

The state is counting on BP money to pay for much of its 2012 coastal master plan, approved by the legislature in May. The plan—the collective work of officials, coastal experts, academics and the public—is aimed at stopping land loss and will cost $50 billion over 50 years.

Graves discussed the spill’s effects, and said it’s unclear what dead dolphins and anomalies with oyster and shrimp signify and too soon to know the full impact of the 2010 disaster. Two weeks ago, a big tar mat was found in Grande Isle, he noted. Regarding Gulf seafood, Graves said “it could be fine, but it may not be. If the sector suffers long-term effects, as Alaska’s herring did after the 1989 Exxon Valdez spill, coastal communities, along with seafood vendors, restaurants and tourism will be hit too.

When asked, Graves said Gulf oystermen should not be required to sign final releases in claims settlements. “It’s too soon for that,” he said. “If oysters are in decline three years from now then oystermen are toast.”

Regardless of what transpires in the settlement process, the state won’t give BP a final release anytime soon, Graves said, meaning it won’t sign away its rights to pursue BP further. “There will be a robust reopener,” he said. Reopener clauses are for spill-related injuries that might surface down the road.

Graves and Kungel said Louisiana is expected to receive a greater share of BP’s CWA penalty money than other Gulf states. “All the metrics—of heavy oiled coastline, barrels spilled, dead dolphins, dead birds—indicate that Louisiana took 60 percent to 90 percent of the brunt of the spill,” Graves said.

When asked about Corexit, Graves said it had only been sprayed in federal waters. However, that didn’t jive with past reports from fishermen and others who said they’d seen it sprayed directly into coastal marshes to disperse BP oil.

As for projects at the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, New Orleans District Commander Colonel Ed Fleming said Congress gave the Corps $14.6 billion for hurricane and storm risk reduction in New Orleans and Southeast Louisiana after Katrina. So far, $10.8 billion of it has been obligated or committed. The Mississippi River Gulf Outlet or MRGO, also known as Hurricane Alley, was closed in 2009. A new, 133-mile hurricane protection system for greater New Orleans will be completed by late 2012. The Corps met a requirement to have 100-year defenses—or protection from a storm with a one percent chance of occurring annually—in place by mid-2012.

The Corps has built levees, flood gates, surge barriers and other structures in greater New Orleans since Katrina, and the protection offered is based on modeling of past storms. “Multiple storms have told us how high to build,” Fleming said. The Inner Harbor Navigation Canal-Lake Borgne Surge Barrier is the Corps’ biggest civil-works project ever, and the West Closure Complex contains the world’s largest sector gates and pump station. The projects are visible to the public even if no one outside the Corps can remember their names.

The Corps plans to armor the levees by placing turf or concrete slabs on their protected sides. “At some point, we’re going to have a bigger storm, and the levees could overtop,” Fleming warned. Hurricane Katrina is generally considered to have been a 400-year storm.

Fleming joked “I have a love-hate relationship with Garret Graves. I love Garret but he hates me.” The Army Corps and the state collaborate on coastal planning but sometimes disagree. On the armoring issue, the state’s CPRA believes that new walls should be placed on the tops of levees, instead of placing turf on the sides.

Over $2 billion worth of HSDRRS contracts have been awarded to small businesses, and Fleming urged businesses interested in working with the Corps to look at the agency’s website and apply. He said the Corps likes to spread the word about its storm protection by speaking to community and church groups and schools. When an audience member said her boyfriend and her neighborhood bar aren’t aware of just how serious the threats to Louisiana’s coast are, Fleming said “I’d be happy to come and talk to your bar.”

Graves said “60 million years ago, we were under water. It took millions of years for Louisiana’s land mass to be built from Mississippi River sediment.” But he said it took only 80 years for the Army Corps to mess that up.

Graves conceded that “New Orleans has the best protection system today that it’s ever had” because of the Corps’ recent projects.

However, more needs to be done, Graves said. “River sediment is mostly wasted now and the state’s master plan calls for reconnecting the river,” he said. “The plan calls for more holistic management. In the last year, we’ve started to see a little, net land gain. We can turn things around.” In the Atchafalaya River outflow, the Wax Lake delta marsh is growing.

Under the coastal master plan, freshwater river diversions will be used to capture sediment. “We’ll put diversions where we can maximize sediment and land building,” Graves said. “We’ll avoid homes and business.” Oystermen, shrimpers and homeowners are among the critics of diversions in their midst.

Graves said people have asked how they can be helpful since Katrina , and he welcomes input from the public. “In China they built a great wall,” he said. Though Graves didn’t say so, soldiers, regular people and criminals are among those who built the Great Wall more than two millennia ago.

Fleming advised New Orleans residents not to be complacent now that they’re better protected and to follow any orders to evacuate before a hurricane.

This article originally published in the July 23, 2012 print edition of The Louisiana Weekly newspaper.

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