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Gulf Coast restoration plan is approved but lacks funding

3rd September 2013   ·   0 Comments

By Susan Buchanan
Contributing Writer

At a public meeting Wednesday, the Gulf Coast Ecosystem Restoration Council okayed an initial plan—expected to be fleshed out within the next year or so—to oversee spending of penalty money stemming from BP’s 2010 spill. Under RESTORE Act rules, 80 percent of Clean Water Act fines from the disaster off Louisiana’s coast will be split between five Gulf states. But the coalition said it’s too soon to prioritize projects and allocate dollars to them because the extent of penalties against BP and its contractors won’t be known until next year. Meeting in downtown New Orleans, the federal-state council unanimously approved a list of broad goals—conserving habitats, replenishing marine resources, encouraging community resiliency and invigorating the coastal economy—to direct how money from fines will be spent.

In opening remarks, council member Governor Piyush Jindal said Louisiana’s share of the pot will be used for projects in the state’s $50 billion Coastal Master Plan, approved by the legislature last year. He said parts of the coast remain oiled since the spill, and he lost no time lacing into BP. Jindal said Transocean Ltd., owner of the Deepwater Horizon rig, had stepped up to the plate and made amends. But he criticized BP for spending more on public relations in the Gulf than on restoration. Transocean pleaded guilty to spill-related charges and agreed to pay $1.4 billion in civil and criminal fines early this year. BP has agreed to a record $4 billion in criminal fines but remains in litigation in federal district court in New Orleans over civil fines.

So far, the RESTORE Act trust fund has been promised $800 million in the next two years, its share of CWA fines levied against Transocean, and has received $320 million.

After Wednesday’s meeting, BP released a statement countering Jindal’s comments. “To date, we have spent $26 billion on response, cleanup and claims,” BP vice president Geoff Morrell said. “Repeated assertions that we have spent more money on advertising than this are grossly in error and seem purposefully intended to mislead the public.”

On Thursday, BP released another statement upbraiding Louisiana officials. “They continue to raise unrealistic and unwarranted expectations about what their constituents and the state should expect—as they look to spend money they do not have,” BP said.

Penny Pritzker, secretary of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and chairwoman of the Gulf Coast Ecosystem Restoration Council, said Wednesday she hopes the group can begin selecting and funding projects within the next twelve months. The council will work with other entities and activities receiving spill-related funding, including the Natural Resource Damage Assessment process, to avoid duplication, she said. The federal NRDA is assessing ecosystem damage and what’s needed to fix it.

Justin Ehrenwerth, the Restor­ation Council’s executive director, said the council’s staff would set up citizens’ advisory and science advisory committees to assist in project selection. Envi­ronmental groups and others have demanded that these committees be established. Ehrenwerth said the council will release a draft project list ahead—based on state and federal proposals—for public comment, and then might make changes to that list, before using it to award funding. He said the council received more than 41,000 comments on a draft plan it released in May and made some changes before releasing its Initial Com­pre­hensive Plan in August.

In 50, spoken comments from the public at the end of Wed­nesday’s meeting, a number of environmental groups endorsed the council’s plan but some said that residents hadn’t been given enough time to review it. Many echoed Jindal’s view that projects need to be selected soon. “Delay is the enemy” in coastal restoration, and Louisiana’s master plan includes ready-to-go projects, said David Muth, state director of the National Wildlife Federation’s Coastal Louisiana Campaign.

Kara Lankford, outreach specialist at the Ocean Conservancy, encouraged the council to appoint a science adviser and develop a science-based blueprint for submitting projects.

Commenters weighed in on aspects of Louisiana’s coastal master plan. Captain George Ricks of The Save Louisiana Coalition was one of several speakers who said proposed Mississippi River diversions for land building will damage oyster estuaries with freshwater and should be reassessed in the master plan.

Other commenters recommended including minorities, local workers and youth in coastal restoration. Thao Vu of the Mississippi Co­alition for Vietnamese Ameri­can Fisherfolk and Families said fishermen have been unable to review some key Restoration Council documents that haven’t been translated into Vietnamese. And the council hasn’t always responded to public comments submitted in Vietnamese. Vu also said oyster reefs remain closed since the spill, and her group worries about seafood sustainability and lingering impacts of oil and dispersants.

Patrick Barnes, president of BFA Environmental, an African Ameri­can-owned engineering and environmental services firm, said he hopes the plan will tap locals and youth for coastal restoration. He suggested requiring that 20 percent local workers be included in the RFP or request-for- proposal stage of projects.

Barnes founded New Orleans non-profit Limitless Vistas in 2006, training at-risk youth as environmental field technicians to help the city recover from hurricanes. Darryl Lutcher, a St. Augustine High School grad with some college under his belt, took the mike Wednesday and said his participation in Limitless Vistas was personally fulfilling. “But looking around the room this afternoon, I see I’m the only YBM or young black man here,” he said. He began an environmental career with Ardaman and Associates Inc. in Harahan this year.

Harvey Reed, executive director of the Louisiana Association of Cooperatives, encouraged the council to include people of color in its planning. The only apparent minority member on the Restoration Council is Bobby Jindal, an Indian American.

As for funding, the outcome of an ongoing civil trial against BP will determine most of the fines to be used for restoration. The trial resumes Sept. 30 in U.S. District Court in New Orleans, with another phase slated for January. Under the RESTORE Act, BP can be penalized $1,000 to $4,300 per barrel leaked after the Horizon rig exploded in late April 2010. Fines could total as much as $20 billion.

Meanwhile, the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation will receive more than $2.5 billion over the next five years from criminal plea agreements with Transocean and BP, according to the Restoration Council last week.

Restoration Council members include the governors of the five Gulf Coast states, the secretaries of the Army and the departments of Agriculture, Commerce, Home­land Security and Interior, and the administrator of the Envi­ronmental Protection Agency.

At Wednesday’s council meeting—held at the glittering, new Hyatt Regency Hotel on Loyola Ave.—Governor Jindal noted it was the eight-year anniversary of Katrina and said the rebuilding of New Orleans had been in question for awhile. Hurricane Isaac made landfall a year ago Wednesday.

This article originally published in the September 02, 2013 print edition of The Louisiana Weekly newspaper.

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