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Legislation Could Help RESTORE Gulf Coast

June 14, 2012
 
By DAVID RAINER
Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources
 
Many people along the Gulf Coast are not likely familiar with the RESTORE Act, a part of the transportation bill that is currently being debated in Congress. Yet, there is a group of people who consider RESTORE legislation the best vehicle to overcome the impact of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in 2010 by directing the majority of the penalties assessed to BP and other affected parties to the Gulf area.
 
A recent conference call among conservation and outdoors groups illustrated the importance of the RESTORE Act to the outdoors community along the Gulf Coast. It is obvious the legislation could have a far-ranging impact upon life along the Gulf.
 
U.S. Congressman Jo Bonner of Mobile helped draft legislation that would direct the lion’s share of potential fines against BP and other responsible parties to the Gulf Coast, where the bulk of the oil spill’s impact was felt. Under current federal law, all of the penalty money would go to the federal treasury to offset federal clean-up costs for future oil spills.
 
“More than two years after the Deepwater Horizon oil spill racked our region, community leaders and environmental groups are still united behind the need to pass legislation to address the long-term economic and environmental recovery of the damaged areas along the five Gulf Coast states, including Alabama,” Bonner said. "Clean Water Act fines resulting from the federal government's ongoing lawsuit against BP, Transocean and other parties deemed responsible for the 2010 spill could potentially reach $20 billion. Last year, I joined fellow Members of Congress from the five Gulf Coast states in introducing legislation, known as the RESTORE Act, to steer 80 percent of future Clean Water Act fines to a newly created Gulf Coast Restoration Trust Fund.  The Senate introduced similar legislation in 2011.
 
“The House was first to act, passing in February legislation that contained language voicing support for the creation of a Gulf Coast Restoration Trust Fund.  Then, in March, the Senate passed its RESTORE language as an amendment to their version of the transportation authorization bill.  Since that time, the House and Senate have been unable to agree on a final version of the transportation bill, but negotiations are ongoing. I am continuing to work with other Gulf Coast lawmakers, including Senator Jeff Sessions as well as Senator Richard Shelby, who is a member of the House and Senate Transportation Conference Committee, in pressing for the adoption of a transportation bill containing our RESTORE language.”
 
Two mayors along Alabama’s Gulf Coast – Dauphin Island’s Jeff Collier and Gulf Shores’ Robert Craft – were particularly hard-hit by the environmental and economic devastation from the oil spill.
 
“Nothing on the books will enhance the recovery economically and environmentally like the RESTORE Act,” said Craft. “It’s broad enough to help us in many areas. There is a lot of money for assistance to NRDA (Natural Resource Damage Assessment). There is a lot of money specifically for economic recovery and development. It is the perfect vehicle if we can get it passed.
 
“It would allow for the construction of infrastructure. We’d be able to do roadways. We’d be able to do beach renourishment. Hopefully, we’d be able to work on some insurance reform. Economic recovery is covered in a broad sense. It’s help with the State Docks and being able to maintain the ship channel. It’ll help with the completion with the Foley Beach Express. There is a 10-person committee that will decide where the money goes, so I’m giving you my opinion.”
 
Craft foresees mitigation for the environmental damage that occurred in shoreline restoration from the beaches to the estuaries and marshes along the Gulf Coast.
 
“I think the RESTORE Act has a lot of support,” Craft said. “What it’s tied to is the transportation bill. You will have the Senate and House to agree to move it forward. That’s the best-case scenario.”
 
The current authorization of the transportation bill expires June 30.
 
Dauphin Island’s Collier was at the forefront of the impact the disaster had on the Alabama barrier island in numerous ways.
 
“Obviously, the RESTORE Act has a lot of opportunity to bring immediate assistance to all of south Alabama and the whole Gulf Coast, for that matter, both environmentally and economic development-wise,” Collier said. “There are a lot of opportunities, but people need to understand that whatever the money amount is, it’s not going to be enough to do everything everybody wants. We’ll have a tough time determining where the money goes. There will have to be prioritizations made. It’s stipulated in the act what qualifies for the funds. Almost anything environmental is in there, but also there’s a recovery aspect for economic development, as well.”
 
As a member of the Coastal Recovery Commission, an entity established by Gov. Robert Bentley to deal with the oil spill ramifications, Collier and the commission went through a very public process to produce a report that offers a framework on how to put any future resources to use.
 
“There is so much potential to make sure the restoration takes place on all levels, but even more important, our whole economy relies on a healthy environment,” Collier said. “So paramount to all of this is to ensure that money is set aside for ongoing studies in fisheries and ecosystems for years to come to monitor the long-term effect of the oil spill.”
 
Collier said he talked with Dr. John Dindo at Dauphin Island Sea Lab recently about the fact that some of the effects of the oil spill may not show up for five or 10 years, if they show up at all.
 
“We need to make sure everything stays healthy,” Collier said. “As important, we need to also remind people that Gulf seafood is safe to eat. We not only want to make people in the area know the seafood is safe, but we need to make sure people around the nation and world know that Gulf seafood is safe and delicious. That way the shrimpers, oystermen and fishermen can get back out there earning a living again.
 
“The whole Gulf Coast had a major setback with the oil spill. We need a boost to help places like Dauphin Island and other areas of the Gulf Coast that were directly affected by the spill. The RESTORE Act would be a major opportunity to give us a kick-start and get things ramped back up again. Tourists seem to be coming back, but there are things we could do to get things to come back quicker if we had this assistance.”
 
PHOTOS: (By DAVID RAINER) The Deepwater Horizon oil spill in 2010 left the Alabama Gulf Coast economy in shambles and threatened the entire Gulf Coast ecosystem. The RESTORE Act would be a way to mitigate the disaster and ensure the majority of the penalties levied will go to the areas most affected by the spill.
 
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