By DAVID RAINER

Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources

More than five years ago, April 20, 2010, to be exact, life on the Gulf Coast changed, and not for the better.

That is the date of the Deepwater Horizon drilling platform explosion that killed 11 people and injured 17. It also resulted in 134 million gallons of crude oil being released into Gulf waters.

The ensuing damage to the Gulf Coast’s ecology and economy is still being felt, and the process to acquire compensation from BP for that damage has been an ongoing effort.

Finally, however, there does seem to be progress as outlined last week in a BP Settlement meeting at the Battle House Renaissance Hotel in Mobile. Representatives from the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources (ADCNR), U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) and NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) gave updates on the proposed settlements with BP and how the record $20.8 billion would be distributed.

If the presiding judge approves Phase III of the settlements, BP will be required to pay $8.1 billion in natural resources damages, including the $1 billion BP agreed to pay for early restoration projects. A Clean Water Act civil penalty of $5.5 billion will be assessed to BP. In addition, $4.9 billion will be paid for state economic claims, and $1 billion will be reserved for local economic claims. Other money would cover Natural Resource Damage Assessment costs, unknown injury and adaptive management and costs related to the False Claims Act.

N. Gunter Guy Jr., ADCNR Commissioner, said in addition to the $1.3 billion in restoration funding due the state, there is also $1 billion to be paid by BP to Alabama for economic damages.

“Those proceeds are in addition to and separate from the BP settlement (Clean Water Act violations and Natural Resource Damage) covered at this meeting,” Guy said at last week’s gathering. “That money is separate from what may have been received by local governments, private businesses and private claims.”

Rachel Hankey, an attorney with DOJ, highlighted the proposed monetary settlement for the audience.

“The $5.5 billion penalty is by far the largest civil penalty that’s ever been paid under the Clean Water Act,” said Hankey, who pointed out that BP would not be able to take any tax deductions for payments related to these claims.

Jean Cowan from NOAA outlined how the damages caused by the spill were assessed through an exhaustive, comprehensive process.

“When we talk about this spill, we never lose sight of the fact that just on the night of the explosion 11 people lost their lives and 17 more were injured,” said Jean Cowan of NOAA. “That’s just during the explosion. We certainly know that many more people suffered long-term injuries due to exposure to the oil and suffered economic impacts because of the loss of income through the incident.”

Cowan said the Deepwater Horizon Natural Resource Trustees will focus on the plants and animals along the coastlines that were injured because of the spill.

“Our purpose is to make the parties responsible for the spill compensate the public for the injuries to the Gulf and to restore the northern Gulf of Mexico to a condition that it would have been in if it had not been for the spill,” she said. “For the past five-and-a-half years we have documented, on an ecosystem level, the injuries to the Gulf of Mexico.

“How we describe ecosystem in this incidence is that it is a highly interactive and interdependent network of organisms, all the way from the microbes to the plants and animals, as well as the physical environment in which they live. We enjoy some of the most incredible sport and commercial fishing in the world. We have populations of dolphins and endangered sea turtles. We also have in the Gulf of Mexico these rare and endangered deep-sea corals that live a mile deep on the sea floor. We also have some of the most popular beaches in the country.”

Cowan said the BP disaster is the largest oil spill in U.S. history. She said the oil spread from a mile deep in the Gulf up through the water column 50 miles offshore and then moved onshore to impact fragile coastal habitats. The spill covered more than 1,300 miles of shoreline.

“That’s more than the distance from New Orleans to New York,” Cowan said. “In addition, oil slicks were observed cumulatively over 43,000 square miles in the Gulf of Mexico. That’s about the same size as the state of Virginia.”

“To put it simply, wherever the oil went, it created harm.”

Cowan said Trustees assessed the injuries caused by the oil spill by looking for impacts in a number of places, including the water column for fish and shellfish, benthic resources on the ocean floor, the nearshore marine ecosystem (estuarine coastal wetlands, subtidal oysters, beaches, shallow unvegetated habitats, gulf sturgeon and submerged aquatic vegetation), birds, sea turtles, marine mammals and recreational use (boating, fishing and beach-going).

She said the restoration process would come in four segments – restore and conserve habitat; restore water quality, replenish and protect living coastal and marine resources; and provide and enhance recreational opportunities.

When the settlement is approved, BP will make the initial payment one year after the settlement is approved and will make annual payments for 15 years.

BP has also agreed to an additional $700 million for unknown conditions and adaptive management to deal with unforeseen problems that may arise in the future.

“What that means is we know that over the 15-plus years the conditions are going to change,” Cowan said. “By setting aside this $700 million, it allows us to have a safety net to address future conditions.

“To give you an idea of what’s in this plan for Alabama, state officials and trustees will focus efforts on coastal inshore habitats. Additional projects in Alabama can also include restoration of living coastal resources, such as birds and marine mammals. There will also be opportunities to enhance the recreational opportunities that were lost because of the spill.”

The public will have the opportunity to comment on all the restoration plans. The public comment period runs through December 4, 2015. Visit http://www.gulfspillrestoration.noaa.gov/restoration-planning/gulf-plan/ to submit a comment.

For an Alabama perspective on the oil spill restoration efforts and projects, visit http://alabamacoastalrestoration.org/ for additional information and to sign up for email updates.

“We want people to know this site is there for them,” said Commissioner Guy. “This is one of the best resources for our people to stay in touch with what is happening with these funds.

“Everybody has an opinion on what this oil spill did, but at the end of the day, this settlement brings closure for all the Gulf Coast, and especially Alabama, and gives us the ability to move forward on addressing natural resource damages, addressing the needs of our coastal communities and completing some really beneficial projects over the coming years. Right now, we’ve got a little more than $100 million in early restoration money, and we’re moving forward with those projects.”

PHOTOS: (David Rainer) Rapid deployment of protective booms kept the oil from spreading into Mobile Bay, but many areas of the Alabama Gulf Coast were significantly impacted by the Deepwater Horizon incident.

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