NEW ORLEANS (CN) - Gulf Coast lawmakers on Tuesday encouraged careful use of BP's new $1 billion fund for coastal restoration, and said the allotment of money should be treated as if it will be the last. They warned that BP's money cannot be expected to fix decades of environmental damage. Louisiana loses wetlands at a rate of roughly a football field every half hour.
Lawmakers and representatives of community organizations spoke Tuesday during a meeting at Tulane University. Residents can't fix what already has been lost, but this could be a great opportunity to preserve what's left, speakers said.
"We have more national attention to our Gulf of Mexico than ever before. Let's make the most out of these opportunities and these projects," Windell Curole, executive director of the South Lafourche Levee District told the group of roughly 150.
"Healthy ecology equates to a healthy economy," Curole said.
Speakers said that until Americans recognize the Mississippi Delta as the "lifeblood of America," national growth is impossible. And they sounded a common theme here, the contrasting views of Gulf Coast residents as victims of recurring disasters, versus citizens who just want a fair share of national resources.
BP announced it would donate $1 billion for environmental restoration on the anniversary of the April 20, 2010 Deepwater Horizon explosion that killed 11 and set off the worst oil spill in history. The $1 billion is to come from the $20 billion fund overseen by Kenneth Feinberg, set aside last summer at President Obama's request.
It could be the last restoration money the Gulf of Mexico will see, because although BP faces extensive liability under the Oil Pollution and the Clean Water Acts, without new legislation, fines will go into a federal trust and may never arrive at the Gulf Coast.
That's what's happened for decades, as Gulf Coast oil revenue is sent to the federal government, with no guarantees or guidelines to see that any of it returns to the Gulf.
Curole said the federal government makes $5 billion in oil revenue from the Mississippi Delta every year, but Delta residents don't receive nearly that much in benefits.
"Deltas are places of great opportunity and great risks," Curole said.
"If we get away from damages and do the right thing, we're going to make up for what was damaged the most," Curole said, adding that "in complex situations like the Delta, it is complicated to know what is the right thing" to do.
Trudy Fisher, executive director of the Mississippi Department of Environmental Quality, said she participated in negotiations with BP that resulted in a 5-page "framework" for early restoration that led to BP's release of the $1 billion.
Fisher said BP put up the $1 billion because it would end up paying for restoration one way or the other anyway.
We're going to make them fix what they hurt, and that's basically what a restoration project is," Fisher said.
Fisher said the BP spill was the "inverse" of what happened in Alaska in the Exxon Valdez spill, because Alaska was a pristine habitat so the destruction was obvious, while the Gulf of Mexico already had serious issues with pollution, which "makes damage assessment more complicated."