Gulf States Set Plan For Spending Coastal Restoration Funds

Federal and state officials voted Thursday on a plan to restore the Gulf Coast. The meeting in New Orleans is intended to set a course for recovery from the worst environmental disaster in U.S. history.

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States that border the Gulf of Mexico are awaiting some big money. They could garner billions of dollars from fines and penalties stemming from the Deepwater Horizon oil spill back in 2010. The states have been anticipating that income and debating how to spend it. Now, they have a plan.

From New Orleans, here's NPR's Debbie Elliott.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: So I'd like to call for a vote by acclamation. All in favor?

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: Aye.

DEBBIE ELLIOTT, BYLINE: The support was unanimous as the Gulf Coast Ecosystem Restoration Council voted in New Orleans yesterday to adopt a framework for prioritizing how to repair the Gulf Coast. Commerce Secretary Penny Pritzker chairs the joint panel of federal and state officials.

SECRETARY PENNY PRITZKER: This council has an unprecedented opportunity to preserve and strengthen the Gulf in many ways.

ELLIOTT: Typically, after an oil spill, civil fines would go into a federal trust fund created to respond to such disasters, but the BP spill was not typical. It spewed more than four million barrels of oil into the Gulf of Mexico and fouled beaches and wetlands in five states. In response, Congress decided the bulk of the money should be spent in the affected region. Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal called on the council to cut the red tape and get moving.

GOVERNOR BOBBY JINDAL: We need to get these dollars to the states, counties, parishes where the oil came ashore and into ground as quickly as possible.

ELLIOTT: But the plan was broad and did not identify specific projects. Those approvals are not likely to come until next summer. Part of the delay is that it's unclear just how much money the council has to work with. BP is embroiled in a federal civil trial to determine liability for the spill. Jindal says BP should quit fighting in court and pay to restore the coast it damaged.

JINDAL: BP needs to stop spending hundreds of millions of dollars on their public relations campaign, telling us how great they are and start proving it by addressing their clean water act and natural resources damage liabilities today. Their responsibilities are not going away.

(APPLAUSE)

ELLIOTT: BP responded that the company has spent $26 billion to date on response, cleanup and economic claims. Depending on the outcome of the federal trial, up to 20 billion more could be at stake. And with 80 percent of that directed back to the Gulf states, it's no surprise that counties, parishes and municipalities are lining up for a piece of the pie. Proposals range from sewer system improvements to tourism promotion to rebuilding wetlands.

Restoration council executive director Justin Ehrenworth says the plan includes both ecosystem repairs and revitalizing the Gulf economy.

JUSTIN EHRENWORTH: Here in the Gulf, ecosystem restoration and economic development are just inextricably linked, and that's very important to our thinking as we move forward. That selecting those good ecosystem projects will indeed lead to positive economic development.

ELLIOTT: Casi Calloway, director of the environmental group Mobile Baykeeper in Alabama, says she's relieved to hear that message.

CASI CALLOWAY: Mostly, we were concerned and not a little bit nervous that it was going to be spent all on roads and bridge projects and economic projects that will actually further impact the environment. But it looks like they're going to stand strong and do the right thing and invest in environmental restoration.

ELLIOTT: BP is back in court next month as a New Orleans federal judge tries to determine just how much oil fouled the Gulf and what BP and its partners should pay for the damage.

Debbie Elliott, NPR News, New Orleans.

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