By BECKY GILLETTE
The Gulf Coast received an early Christmas present in the form of the announcements of significant economic development and environmental restoration projects when the Gulf Coast Ecosystem Restoration Council (RESTORE) met last week and approved major projects such as a $17 million aquarium that will have wide-ranging benefits across the Mississippi Gulf Coast.
“The council’s approval of the Initial Funded Priorities List and the Spill Impact Component Rule represent major milestones in the response to the Deepwater Horizon oil spill,” said Justin R. Ehrenwerth, executive director, RESTORE council, who oversees work involving the five Gulf Coast states affected by the oil spill. “The Council is indebted to folks across the Gulf — including so many on the Mississippi Coast — who shared their thoughts and ideas with us. Now, we look forward to implementing the approved projects and continuing to work with the public to make sure that we get this right for the Gulf.”
Kendra Parson, director of external affairs for the RESTORE council, said the meeting in Biloxi went really well.
“The council approved both the 2015 priorities list and the spill impact component,” Parson said. “We had 18 people make public comments. It was well attended. We want to have a healthy Gulf, which leads to a healthy economy. It was a horrible thing that happened, but we are happy this law was passed to make sure the money for the lawsuits and litigation are used for what were intended to help restore the Gulf waters in the states affected and not spread across the whole U.S.”
Parson said the money is actually not from BP, which was developing the Deepwater Horizon project, but from Transocean, one of the contractors involved.
Gov. Phil Bryant addressed the meeting and announced major projects.
“We continue to propose and implement projects to support the economic and natural resource recovery of the Mississippi Gulf Coast and the entire Gulf region resulting from the oil spill,” Bryant said. “We have formed effective partnerships with the other states and the federal agencies to ensure funds are spent in the most effective and strategic ways to restore and enhance our natural resources and our economy.”
The four ecosystem restoration projects were approved totaling $20.7 million, and were in addition to over $180 million of oil spill related funds for ecosystem restoration projects received to date. The four projects are:
» $15.5 million. Strategic Land Protection, Conservation, and Enhancement of Priority Gulf Coast Landscapes. This project will protect lands through acquisition and conservation easement programs in areas across the Mississippi Gulf Coast. Priority areas include the Gulf Islands National Seashore, Grand Bay National Wildlife Refuge, and the DeSoto National Forest.
» $2.18 million. Enhancing the Opportunities for Beneficial Use of Dredge Sediments. This project will provide funding for planning, engineering and design and permitting for use of dredge material for coastal restoration that protects against coastal erosion while creating habitat for marine life.
» $2.27 million. The Mississippi Sound Estuarine Program: A Programmatic Vision for Bridging Coastal Restoration, will act as a coordinating body to ensure Mississippi restoration success is maximized. The program will look across the Gulf to leverage existing restoration efforts to the benefit of Mississippi.
» $750,000. SeaGrant Education and Outreach will undertake education and outreach activities to describe the values of land protection for habitat, water quality improvement and for securing the future of the Gulf of Mexico in Mississippi. This project will establish an education and outreach program in Mississippi. The program will provide grants to fund education activities focused on restoration activities such as land conservation, habitat stewardship, and water quality.
Bryant also announced Mississippi’s initial Multiyear Implementation Plan which includes nine proposed projects totaling more than $54.1 million. The projects were proposed to the governor by the GoCoast 2020 Commission. GoCoast 2020 was established by Bryant in 2012 to serve as the official advisory body for the allocation of funds received by the state under the RESTORE Act. The RESTORE Act requires the state, through the Mississippi Department of Environmental Quality, to prepare the MIP for Direct Component Funding which is administered by the U.S. Department of the Treasury.
Some of the eligible activities that can be included in the state’s MIP include: restoration and protection of natural resources; mitigation of damage to natural resources; work-force development and job creation; improvements to state parks; infrastructure projects, including ports; coastal flood protection; and promotion of tourism and Gulf seafood. The projects have to be approved by the U.S. Department of the Treasury after a 45-day public comment period.
The proposed economic development projects include:
» $2 million. Stennis International Airport hangar facility will increase the capability of Stennis International Airport to provide aeronautical services to the Mississippi Gulf Coast.
» $8 million. Funds would be used at Port Bienville to improve the terminal use for trans-loading, become functional for containers on barge operations, extend an existing rail line, and be used to support supply vessels in the offshore industry.
» $5 million. Affordable ultra-high speed Internet access. The proposed project would improve access to ultra-high speed Internet, one-gigabit or more, by advancing fiber optic networks along the Mississippi Gulf Coast.
» $17 million. The proposed Mississippi Aquarium is envisioned as a family and education and research-centered tourism facility for the Gulf Coast market. A marine education center at Point Cadet in Biloxi that included an aquarium was destroyed by Hurricane Katrina.
» $10.2 million. The proposed Jackson County Corridor Connector will provide a critical link between major commercial developments in the D’Iberville/St. Martin area.
» $4 million. The proposed Mississippi Gulf Coast Work-Ready Community Program is designed to aid coastal citizens in the attainment of basic skills, employability skills, and specific industry skills that are needed in high-demand industry sectors.
» $1 million. The proposed project will support William Carey University in establishing its School of Pharmacy on the Mississippi Gulf Coast.
» $1 million. The off-bottom oyster aquaculture program would establish a program to provide training on the ecological, economic, and business components of off-bottom aquaculture to support the seafood workforce.
» $900,000. The proposed project management system would assist the Mississippi Department of Environmental Quality in the management of projects that restore or protect the Gulf Coast.
» $5 million. Direct component funding will also include $5 million for strategic stream restoration. This project would undertake various aspects of stream restoration such as engineering and design, planning, and implementation across the Mississippi Gulf Coast. It is designed to improve the water quality that empties into the Mississippi Sound and reduce the amount of beach closures due to water quality.
Comprehensive information about these projects and all of Mississippi’s restoration efforts can be found at www.restore.ms.