Oil spill commission releases restoration plan

MISSISSIPPI GULF COAST — A commission appointed by Gov. Haley Barbour has released its long-term vision plan for the Mississippi Gulf Coast in the aftermath of the BP oil spill.

Bill Walker, co-chairman of the Mississippi Gulf of Mexico Commission, said the report focuses on three areas: a sustainable environment, sustainable economy and programs to address mental health issues associated with the spill.

“There are prioritized projects or approaches under all three of those. The report lays out a vision for what we would like coastal Mississippi to be five or 10 years from now,” Walker, executive director of the Department of Marine Resources, said Sunday.

The report calls for quickly starting a comprehensive habitat restoration plan in key bays, estuaries and rivers, and promoting the region as a destination spot. The report also recommended the continued testing of marine habitats to restore consumer confidence in coast seafood.

The report is open for public comment for 30 days. A draft of the report has been forwarded to Navy Secretary Ray Mabus, the government’s point person on Gulf coast restoration.

How long it takes for some recommended programs to be implemented would depend on the funding source, Walker said.

“If the funds come from BP, the programs will go quickly. If they come from federal agencies, they’ll go more slowly. It gives decision-makers an idea of how this cross-section of coastal Mississippi wants them to proceed.”

The report recommends Congress provide financial incentive programs to develop and restore the region’s economy, including tax-exempt bonds and other tax breaks. The report also recommends the Federal Emergency Management Agency forgive Hurricane Katrina disaster recovery loans to spur economic recovery.

Another goal was to develop long-term, sustainable mental health programs to address stress related to Katrina, the oil spill and other disasters. Those projects would target early intervention and treatment.

In August, Barbour formed the commission, which includes state agencies representatives, local government leaders and researchers.

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