By BECKY GILLETTE
The Deepwater Horizon oil spill court settlement between BP and the government reached April 4—just a couple weeks before the sixth anniversary of the world’s largest oil spill disaster—opens the way for millions of dollars being allocated for projects on the Mississippi Gulf Coast designed to compensate for the environmental damages.
There are three different funding streams set up underneath the Gulf Coast Ecosystem Restoration Council (RESTORE) totaling $16.7 billion for states from Texas to Florida, with about $1.4 billion allocated to Mississippi. The money is expected to be used for many different types of projects such as restoration of oyster reefs, boat ramps, trails and living shoreline projects. One of the priorities identified in public meetings was about how to the settlement money was improving water quality.
“What we see as the biggest opportunity is a perfect way for the state to invest in water quality infrastructure,” said Jordan Macha, a RESTORE specialist with the Gulf Restoration Network. “This is particularly important because we have seen major water quality issues on the Gulf Coast that affect how folks are able to use coastal areas. There are beach water advisories fairly often indicating it is not safe to swim. A lot of that is from inadequate stormwater and wastewater infrastructure. If the state is willing to invest the RESTORE funds in improving the infrastructure, it is going to boost tourism, help the fisheries, and will certainly benefit the people living along the Gulf Coast.”
Macha said enhancing water quality would dovetail well with other restoration projects such as oyster reef construction and living shoreline projects where vegetation is used to enhance habitat while reducing erosion and improving water quality.
“If we don’t have infrastructure in place to have clean water flowing back into the resource, we are setting up those restoration projects to fail,” Macha said. “Water infrastructure supports coastal communities, but also these areas we are restoring.”
There are also economic benefits.
“The restoration economy is growing,” Macha said. “These monies are going to provide a lot of good, new jobs for Mississippians. We are going to see this restoration industry grow and benefit the economy in Mississippi.”
Jill Mastrototaro, Alabama/Mississippi policy specialist, National Wildlife Federation, who is based in Jackson, said a benefit of the settlement being finalized is that now scientific studies surrounding the impacts of the oil spill can be released. Earlier those studies were withheld because of pending litigation.
The environmental impacts were devastating, Mastrototaro said.
“We are seeing concerning issues as it relates to marine mammals, bird impacts, the fishery population, and oysters,” she said. “Since the federal judge in New Orleans signed the settlement earlier this month, much of that science is now coming to light. It demonstrates it is going to require vigilance by the scientific community and certainly the public at large to keep a spotlight on what we are seeing in terms of the health of our fisheries, our coastal habitats and wildlife. What that means is guiding restorations decisions to make sure those connect to the science that continues to emerge about the health of our resources.”
There is documented proof there is still oil on the ocean floor covering 770 square miles around the well head.
There has been concern that some of the earlier BP funding projects had nothing to do with compensating for environmental impacts. Spending has been approved for roads, a NASA visitor center, a baseball stadium, an aquarium, and even high speed Internet infrastructure. Mastrototaro said the process demonstrates it is going to take careful attention to the science of impacts of the oil spill to make sure the funds are best spent.
After community conversations regarding the best use of the funds, three priorities emerged: 1. Water quality. 2. Coastal habitat protection. 3. Promoting the health of living marine resources like fisheries and oyster beds.
“All are fundamental to the health of the coastal economy,” she said.
Research from the Exxon Valdez oil spill in Alaska 25 years ago that shows marine resources have yet to recover completely indicate it may take a very long time for the Gulf to heal.
“We are hearing from scientists that marine mammals in the Gulf including dolphins have seen serious population decline in the past several years,” Mastrototaro said. “Dolphins may be the canaries in the coal mine demonstrating the long-term environmental health impacts from the Deepwater Horizon tragedy. This sixth year anniversary serves as a vital reminder to the public that this is far from over. We are now entering a new chapter of the recovery process given that the BP settlement has been finalized, and it is now even more important for people around the Gulf Coast to stay engaged as the restoration effort moves forward for transparency in how projects selected, and monitoring of the effectiveness of the projects.”
Mark Wyatt, director of the Office of Restoration for Mississippi Department of Environmental Quality, said they are hoping for approval of a planning grant May 1. That funding will be used to come up with a multi-year expenditure plan.
“Once we get the planning grant, we will go into high gear to plan some of these water projects,” Wyatt said. “We hope by the end of the year to announce projects we are going to try to implement.”
Some ideas for projects including improving lift stations that pump stormwater and a stormwater outfalls design challenge to compete for innovative ways to improve the outfalls.
“The thought process is for everybody to be involved instead of one engineering firm coming up with a design to fix the outfalls,” Wyatt said. “We hope to get some really good ideas with the winners moving into the engineering and design phase. We aren’t going to limit it to one idea because the dynamics of the Mississippi Gulf Coast are that there are different solutions that work best in certain areas.”
With so much money being invested, and numerous different proposals and a lot of public meetings, the RESTORE process can be confusing to the public. MDEQ is working to address that with a conference in early November that will include status reports on projects and announcements of projects for the upcoming years.
“There will be a roundtable discussion with the public about where we are and where we want to go,” Wyatt said. “We want to prevent duplicate efforts. We will announce projects once a year and have a public meeting to discuss it all because it is all interconnected.”
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