Restoring the Gulf Coast

Restoring the Gulf Coast

In a strange twist of fate, the biggest oil spill in U.S. history may end up saving the South's wetlands and coastlines--if we make the right choices.

By Scott Weidensaul
Published: November-December 2013

Experts say BP will eventually be liable for billions under the federal Natural Resource Damage Assessment (NRDA) program, which penalizes companies responsible for hazardous spills for the damage they've done to wildlife and ecosystems.That process could take years, so the company has ponied up $1 billion as a sort of down payment on its expected obligations. But with each of the Gulf states allowed to spend $100 million more or less as they see fit, some of this early windfall is being diverted to some downright ecologically incorrect uses. Alabama, for example, hopes to take $85.5 million of its share to build a huge hotel and conference center at Gulf Shores State Park (instead of spending the money there to restore beaches and marshes affected by oil), while Mississippi has pledged $15 million from its cut of this early BP money to help build a new minor-league baseball stadium in Biloxi.

"Under NRDA, there is a 'human use' category that can be funded, including improved recreation and cultural services," Canfield said, although the hotel proposal and others will have to survive an environmental review and public comment period. "And let's be honest--there is some old-fashioned political horse trading that is going to go on with some of these decisions," he said. "We certainly hope they will keep that to a minimum and maximize the direct benefits to the natural ecosystems [that were] damaged."

Fortunately, some of the $1 billion put up already by BP is going toward solid ecological projects, not boondoggles. In Alabama some 20 miles of critical dunes will be restored with native plants; in Mississippi and Louisiana thousands of acres of oyster reefs will be reestablished. Street lamps and beachside building lighting in eight Florida and Alabama counties will be modified to create dark beaches--essential for nesting loggerhead turtles.

In Florida the state has asked Audubon to take the lead on a five-year project, using some of its share, to safeguard beach-nesting birds like snowy plovers and least terns; it is part of a multi-state effort encompassing 32 sites west into Mississippi. "It's a model that has been really successful elsewhere in the state, and we're excited to be able to expand it to the Panhandle," said Julie Wraithmell, Audubon Florida's director of bird conservation. "We don't usually get an opportunity to work on this kind of geographic scale. It's a sea change in the way we manage coastal birds."

The pot of money that the RESTORE Act will divvy up is likely to be much, much larger. Under the law, 80 percent of all fines and civil settlements under the Clean Water Act are to be used to "restore and protect the natural resources, ecosystems, fisheries, marine and wildlife habitats, beaches, coastal wetlands, and economy of the Gulf Coast region." How the funds will be allocated will be up to the Gulf Coast Ecosystem Restoration Council (known less formally as the Restore Council), made up of representatives appointed by the five Gulf state governors; the secretaries of the federal departments of Interior, Commerce, Agriculture, and Homeland Security, along with the Army; and the administrator of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

No one knows exactly how much money they will have at their disposal. If BP is found to have been "grossly negligent" and receives the maximum fines, it could be on the hook for up to $21 billion. The legal wrangling may take years, but everyone assumes the result will be many, many billions of dollars, and an unprecedented chance to change the Gulf 's fate for the better.

"Conservationists along the coast have been picking up the scraps and trying to do the very most with very little for decade upon decade," said Richard Gibbons, director of conservation for Houston Audubon. "Now we're being asked to pick up our heads and look at the big horizon and say, all right, what are our real priorities?"

There is no shortage of ideas. David Muth, who leads the National Wildlife Federation's Mississippi River Delta Restoration Program, is focusing on that impossibly rich ecosystem that has been vanishing as sea-level rise and sediment loss rob the delta of its natural ability to build new land.

"We are essentially in a collapsing landscape," Muth said. "We've lost 1,900 square miles of land since the 1930s, and we're projected to lose--depending on sea-level rise rates over the next 50 years--anywhere from 700 to 1,700 square miles more."

That's why the federation, partnering with Audubon, the Environmental Defense Fund, and other groups, has been pushing to replumb the Mississippi to allow the river to once more build the delta. "There are a lot of ecological tragedies unfolding out there, and most of them don't have a ready-made solution that is attainable," Muth said. "In some ways, this one does."

It would also be incredibly expensive. Louisiana has just approved a master plan for delta restoration and hurricane protection that calls for spending $25 billion for restoration, an average of $500 million a year for the next 50 years--far beyond what anyone expects the BP settlements to provide, even if every penny were devoted to the delta.

For a lot less money, Ben Raines argues, we could safeguard the coastal marshes we already have. The executive director of the Weeks Bay Foundation on Alabama's Mobile Bay, Raines has proposed dedicating a nickel out of every dollar spent by the Restore Council to buy and protect vulnerable coastal habitat.

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