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.”
Fisher added that flooding on the Mississippi River, expected to crest next week, will complicate things still further. Normally a little fresh water is healthy in the Gulf because of the rich sediment carried by the Mississippi, but the flood that is expected could have severe consequences on habitats already reeling from the oil spill.
Oyster reefs, for instance, were largely killed by freshwater diversions that state officials ordered last summer to try to keep oil out. Now the oyster reefs will suffer again.
Nicholas Matherne, director of the Office of Coastal Restoration & Preservation for Terrebonne Parish, said there are three components to restoration: building marshes, sustaining them and protecting them.
“We need to decide on this all together,” Matherne said. “We need to build marsh, keep it alive with [fresh water] diversion, and protect it with barrier islands.”
Matherne said any money BP pays under the Clean Water Act needs “to be spent intelligently,” with the greatest part spent where there was greatest damage.
“The highest impacts were in Louisiana. We need to see the majority of funds stay in Louisiana,” Matherne said.
Charles Allen III, director of Coastal and Environmental Affairs for the City of New Orleans, said, “Now more than ever people in America are waking up to realize this ecosystem is the lifeblood of America.”
He continued: “We need to work together, always. That’s the only way we’re going to make it out of this disaster. It’s all connected.”
During a question and answer session, Janelle Holmes, a resident of the Lower 9th Ward, said residents of Louisiana need their own lobbyists.
“We know we’re dependent on oil,” Holmes said, adding that without oil revenue coming back to the state to restore damage to wetlands by exploration, Louisiana is literally going to waste.
Major contributors to wetland loss are the numerous channels built by oil and gas companies to make exploration easier.
Robert Thomas, a professor and director of the Center for Environmental Communication at Loyola University, said asking the oil and gas industry to do its part to save the Delta region shouldn’t be threatening.
“I never take that statement as onerous to the gas industry,” Thomas said. “All of the channeling from the oil and gas industry is killing us.”
He said the harm done by the channels was not intentional; it was just a byproduct.
It’s time to look at these things head on, Thomas said. Erosion and climate change are issues of immediate relevance to the Delta.
Unfortunately, “climate change we cannot talk about in Louisiana because it’s related to carbon and we can’t talk about carbon,” said Thomas.
Daniel Becnel Jr., an attorney from Reserve, La., offered free help to anyone entering into a coastal restoration contract.
Becnel encouraged people to help themselves.
“We have a whole lot of problems that people who don’t deal with this cannot help,” Becnel said.
He said he continually hears the criticism that “Louisiana doesn’t do for itself enough.”
In addressing what he called a national problem, Becnel said, “We don’t use the technology we have; we don’t use the brain power we have.”
He likened the challenges Louisiana has faced with the effect of the world wars in Europe and Japan. Adversity made some cultures come back stronger.
The Department of Justice has said BP’s $1 billion fund will not affect the amount of money BP will be fined under the Oil Pollution and Clean Water Acts.
Under the Clean Water Act, BP could face fines of up to $4,300 per barrel of oil spilled if it is found liable for negligent or willful misconduct.
Distribution of the resource restoration money will be overseen by trustees from Alabama, Florida, Louisiana, Mississippi, Texas, the Department of the Interior and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.