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The Gulf Coast is still rebuilding, more than three years after the BP oil spill. States are lining up to spend $1 billion from BP on coastal restoration. The money is part of the company's legal responsibility to restore the Gulf of Mexico's natural resources after the worst oil disaster in U.S. history.
But the nature of those projects, including boat ramps and a beachfront hotel, is raising questions about just what counts as coastal restoration. NPR's Debbie Elliott has that story.
DEBBIE ELLIOTT, BYLINE: It had all the trappings of an economic development announcement when Alabama Governor Robert Bentley stood on a sugar-white state park beach to announce plans for an $85 million lodge and conference center.
GOVERNOR ROBERT BENTLEY: Gulf Shores is open for business, it sure is - and also Orange Beach now.
ELLIOTT: State lawmakers, local mayors and business owners were all smiles to hear that the legislature had finally, after years of stalemate, given the go-ahead for a hotel on state park property near Gulf Shores, Alabama. The state can contract with private companies to build and run the facility. What pushed the hotel through this year, as noted by Lieutenant Governor Kay Ivey, is that BP is footing the bill.
LIEUTENANT GOVERNOR KAY IVEY: Without costing the taxpayers a dime.
ELLIOTT: All five Gulf states are sharing in the $1 billion from BP. It's a down payment on what the oil giant will be forced to pay under a lengthy process called Natural Resources Damage Assessment, intended to restore the Gulf ecosystem to the condition it was in before the 2010 oil spill. Governor Bentley says improving the beachfront state park achieves that.
BENTLEY: The lodge and the meeting facility are a part of an overall effort to strengthen the Gulf Coast and our natural environment.
ELLIOTT: The first round of plans from Texas to Florida includes Barrier Island restoration, artificial reefs, science and education centers, boat ramps and boardwalks. It's not unusual that states are lining up projects that don't directly restore the environment, according to Seattle attorney Valerie Lee. She's president of Environment International, a firm that specializes in natural resource damage assessment.
VALERIE LEE: Some of the projects are like coral reefs. You know, you have problems with injury to coral reefs. But you also see things like visitor centers. How on Earth could a building repair the environment? Well, it's not directly repairing the environment. What it is doing is compensating for the recreational lost uses, human uses that are associated with a quality gulf.
ELLIOTT: But Lee says the Alabama beach hotel might be a stretch.
LEE: That, to me, is not providing a public use and a public benefit if, indeed, you're actually charging the public for a hotel room.
ELLIOTT: Alabama officials argue the public couldn't use the beach when it was soiled with oil, and now a new hotel will attract people back to the Gulf Coast. Orange Beach, Alabama, Mayor Tony Kennon says it's a smart strategy to first seek human use reparations, which he calls the low-hanging fruit in the damage assessment process.
MAYOR TONY KENNON: A lot of the environmental projects are going to take more time to evaluate, to look at, to make sure that we're not cutting ourselves short by jumping in too soon and not asking for enough to fix the problem. Whereas when it comes to loss of human use, which is where this money comes under, that's ready for us to grab right now.
ELLIOTT: It could take years of assessment and negotiation to determine the ultimate damage to the Gulf and what BP should pay to repair it, a figure likely to be in the billions. In the meantime, environmental groups want to see early investment in building a more resilient ecosystem.
(SOUNDBITE OF WATER SPLASHING)
ELLIOTT: Projects like this oyster reef on the breezy western shore of Mobile Bay.
CASI CALLAWAY: This is the site of the very first environmental restoration project done in the aftermath of the BP oil disaster.
ELLIOTT: Casi Callaway is director of Mobile Baykeeper. She says two years ago, about 600 volunteers came to this waterfront park in Mobile to lay a quarter mile of oyster shell in the bay, just off the shore.
CALLAWAY: What you're hearing, this new wave sound behind us, is the wake from a ship.
ELLIOTT: Those wakes from the large ships that pass through Mobile Bay have eroded marshes and eaten away at the shore.
(SOUNDBITE OF WAVES LAPPING)
ELLIOTT: Callaway says the new oyster reef absorbs the wave energy before it reaches land.
CALLAWAY: That enables the shoreline to build up behind it. That adds land. That is environmental restoration. It's property enhancement. It's better for insurance purposes, flooding, hurricanes, you name it.
ELLIOTT: Technically, Callaway says, the state may be able to call a hotel restoration. But she says it makes her uneasy about how future monies to compensate for the BP oil spill might be allocated.
CALLAWAY: When the very first thing that's supposed to be environmental is going to an economic project, that's not OK.
ELLIOTT: The early restoration plans have received the OK from BP, Gulf states and the Obama administration. The next step is public comment and review. Debbie Elliott, NPR News, Orange Beach, Alabama.