A Portion Of BP's Fines Will Go To Gulf Restoration

The Obama administration is recommending a significant portion of any federal fines that BP pays for the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico remain in the region. But it will be up to Congress to decide just how much that should be.

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The federal government is building its case to determine how much BP should pay for polluting the Gulf of Mexico with oil. The total could top $20 billion. A new report calls for a significant portion of that penalty to go straight to the region instead of staying in Washington. But the definition of significant will be left to Congress, as NPR's Debbie Elliott reports.

DEBBIE ELLIOTT: Navy Secretary Ray Mabus is the point man for the White House's long-term recovery plan for the Gulf. He's also a former governor of Mississippi and yesterday released his recommendations at the Port of New Orleans, ships and tug boats navigating up and down the Mississippi River behind him. Mabus called on Congress to set aside a chunk of BP fines for coastal restoration.

Mr. RAY MABUS (U.S. Navy Secretary): Because the Gulf took the risk, because the Gulf took the damage, that money, a significant amount of that money, should be dedicated to the Gulf, to the people and the region that bore the brunt of this.

ELLIOTT: Mabus says lawmakers in Washington would have to decide how much of the penalties should go to the Gulf Coast and how the money would be divided among the five states hit by the oil. But it's unclear whether Congress will take up the issue in a lame duck session later this year.

Billy Nungesser, the outspoken president of hard-hit Plaquemines Parish, Louisiana, is guardedly optimistic

Mr. BILLY NUNGESSER (President, Plaquemines Parish): We have to take the hand we're dealt. We're just going to have to be up for the fight - or let's not say fight - let's hopefully say finally we're going to have a group that's going to listen to what's right. For too many years we've gotten the last handout in Louisiana. You know, we've destroyed the wetlands. We've drilled. We've supplied the energy for the country. This is their chance to make it right.

ELLIOTT: Louisiana's congressional delegation is calling for 80 percent of the money to go to the states. Another issue is who will control the money.

Governor HALEY BARBOUR (Republican, Mississippi): Well, we don't think the shots ought to be called from Washington.

ELLIOTT: That's Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour. The Republican was in Washington, D.C. yesterday to testify before a separate panel investigating the oil spill and response. He welcomes the plan to steer fine monies to the coast, but he wants the power to decide how it is spent.

Mr. BARBOUR: Whatever structures are set up in the wake of this to implement what we do need to be dominated by the state governments, not by the federal government.

ELLIOTT: Barbour also doesn't want any settlement with BP to be final and binding until the long-term impact on the Gulf ecosystem and economy is known.

The Mabus report calls on Congress to set up a Gulf Coast Recovery Council to oversee the spending. But in the meantime, the transition from response to recovery will be handled by an inter-agency task force led by EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson. She says the region is finally getting the national attention and resources it deserves.

Ms. LISA JACKSON (EPA Administrator): Ladies and gentlemen, it's the Gulf's turn. Never before has there been such a moment for the Gulf ecosystems and her people. America needs the Gulf. These are America's wetlands, America's islands, America's beaches. And the people of the Gulf need our neighbors more than ever.

ELLIOTT: Jackson says President Obama's promise never to forget the Gulf is now America's promise. The question is whether Congress will make good on that commitment.

Debbie Elliott, NPR News, New Orleans.

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