It’s a “Hurry Up and Wait” situation for the Gulf Coast Ecosystem Restoration Council, which held its first official meeting last week in Mobile. The Council is charged with developing a comprehensive plan to restore the Gulf Coast states’ environmental and economic damage caused by the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in 2010.

The problem is that the Council doesn’t have any money. When the RESTORE Act was passed by the U.S. Congress, it designated that 80 percent of the civil penalties connected with the Clean Water Act violations would go to the Gulf Coast states. However, a settlement of those penalties has not occurred, and Acting Commerce Secretary Rebecca Blank said there is no “crystal ball” to check to determine when funds actually will become available.

Despite the lack of funding, the RESTORE Act required the Council, which supplants the Gulf Coast Ecosystem Restoration Task Force, to have a proposed restoration plan developed within six months of the passage of the bill.

Alabama Gov. Robert Bentley welcomed the Council, Secretary Blank and EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson to Alabama and thanked the Task Force for its work. Gov. Bentley pointed out that Alabama’s coastline accounts for 23 percent of the tax revenue that comes to Montgomery to fund education and essential services. He also recognized the contribution of Alabama’s Congressional Delegation of Sen. Richard Shelby and Sen. Jeff Sessions and Congressman Jo Bonner for their work to get the RESTORE Act passed in Congress.

“The oil rig explosion on April 20, 2010, triggered an unprecedented crisis and response,” Gov. Bentley said. “By the time the well was capped, some 4.9 million barrels of oil had been released into the Gulf of Mexico. This resulted in significant impacts on our ecosystems and economic activity. The nation was impacted by the spill, and each coastal state had different catastrophic damages. The oil spill underscored the crucial linkage between the environment and the economic health of the Gulf of Mexico. People along the Alabama Gulf Coast, like many other areas, depend on the natural beauty and seafood bounties for their livelihoods.

“There are many Alabamians who are still struggling with the effects of the oil spill. In fact, recently, I was eating breakfast at Cracker Barrel. While I was eating, a lady came up to me and said, ‘Governor, I’m so glad to see you here.’ I was in Foley. Then she began to tell me her story about her husband, who had lost his job because he worked on a shrimp boat. She began to cry. All I could do was just stand there and hold her.

“Beaches can be repaired, but lives of people are what we always need to remember.”

Gov. Bentley said that although significant progress has been made since the oil spill, there is much work still to be done.

“We have to make this right for those who suffered greatly, and make sure they have better days ahead,” he said. “We have made progress to get livelihoods restored, businesses back opened and the environmental impact lessened. Today we take another major step forward in making the Gulf Coast stronger and more resilient. The Gulf Coast is truly a national treasure. I am confident we will take the steps necessary to make this region whole again.”

Secretary Blank said that the Gulf of Mexico is one of the most diverse environments in the world, including more than 15,000 species of sea life. She noted that 22 million Americans live in Gulf Coast counties, which are home to 10 of America’s largest sea ports. Those ports accounted for almost half-a-trillion dollars in two-way trade in the first nine months of 2012.

“Today our collective focus is how to restore the long-term health, prosperity and resilience of the vital Gulf region,” Secretary Blank said. “I’m confident we can do that in a way that restores our environment, invigorates local communities and creates jobs. We’re not letting the fact the settlement hasn’t occurred stop us from moving forward with the work of this council, working closely with the states as they develop plans.”

Secretary Blank said once settlement money is deposited into the trust fund, it will be used in five different ways. The five states will share 35 percent of the trust funds, while 30 percent will go to the Council to implement the comprehensive restoration. Another 30 percent will go to the Gulf Coast states for projects that deal with the impact of the oil spill. The remaining five percent will be split between two programs for research, technology and monitoring related to the restoration.

N. Gunter Guy Jr., Commissioner of the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, said he was glad to see the Council start to work as soon as possible.

“It’s good the Council is being proactive and working on planning so that when money becomes available we will be ready to start addressing the projects to help restore the Gulf, and that’s the mindset of our state council as well,” said Commissioner Guy, who served on the Gulf Coast Ecosystem Restoration Task Force. “Still,” Guy continued, “as the Governor points out, we don’t know when the money will come to the states because the Clean Water Act is not a state claim; it is a federal claim only. That’s not to say we haven’t been involved in discussions with them. We hope to have as much input as possible, but the federal government can settle that claim at any time with or without notice to us.

“After the election, there was the criminal penalty settlement (BP agreed to pay $4 billion over five years), which kind of came unexpectedly. It’s the same scenario here. In my opinion, they gave up some of our leverage when they settled the criminal claim without settling the Clean Water Act civil claim as well.”

Commissioner Guy said each Gulf Coast state was impacted by the oil spill in some way, but there should be no priority given to one type of injury over another. He said despite the differences, all states are similarly affected by what happens in the Gulf.

Gulf Shores Mayor Robert Craft said no matter how well the Alabama Gulf Coast has rebounded, there is lingering damage from the oil spill.

“We still have issues related to backwater areas and the future and reputation of the Gulf with all the dispersants that are out there,” Mayor Craft said. “There are questions among our visitors that have expressed ongoing concerns. We have a lot of businesses that have not have been properly compensated for their losses. Some of them went out of business, and some of these family businesses are impossible to replace.

“The whole thing is that if we don’t protect and sustain our environment then we have no economy. Our entire economy is based on a clean, safe and usable environment.”

Image courtesy David Rainer

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