Brad Young, Steve Bender: "Secure the Mississippi Coast's future"
This summer, the Justice Department, the five Gulf Coast states and BP announced an $18.7 billion agreement in principle to settle all of the remaining state and federal claims against BP. For wildlife in the Gulf, this is welcome news.
Though the legal wrangling now appears to be over, impacts from the nation’s worst environmental disaster continue. For example, dolphins are still dying at twice normal rates in Mississippi waters.
Common sense would suggest that dumping millions of gallons of oil and dispersants into one of the world’s most productive ecosystems would have serious consequences. A recent National Wildlife Federation report catalogued studies showing that exposure to oil can cause abnormal development in many species of fish caught off the Mississippi Coast, such as mahi mahi, killifish and yellowfin tuna. Speckled trout spawned less frequently in 2011 in Mississippi than in previous years. Both 2010 and 2011 had the lowest numbers of juvenile red snapper seen in the eastern Gulf fishery since 1994.
It is clear from previous oil spills like the infamous Exxon Valdez disaster in 1989 that a full recovery could take decades or longer.
The BP settlement is perhaps less than some along the Gulf Coast were hoping to see. It is true the company was facing as much as $13.7 billion in the Clean Water Act penalties alone. But the settlement provides needed certainty and will have real benefits for wildlife and Gulf Coast residents.
The deal allows federal, state and local leaders to build on early restoration projects and efforts already underway to restore the Gulf to its full health. The money will arrive in several different formulations over the next 17 years, with different rules for spending it, depending on the source.
The bipartisan RESTORE Act of 2012 will send a total of $4.4 billion dollars from the Clean Water Act part of the settlement back to the Gulf Coast. Mississippi will see $582 million from this funding stream alone.
But the RESTORE Act dollars do not guarantee the future health of the Mississippi Coast. While nearly all of the public debate around the RESTORE Act focused on improving the health of the Gulf, the final bill only mandated 30 percent be spent solely on comprehensive ecosystem restoration—projects that restore Gulf waters, marshes, barrier islands and fisheries.
Nonetheless, there are reasons to be hopeful that Gov. Bryant and the state Department of Environmental Quality will choose to make smart, targeted investments in restoring Mississippi Sound and the Gulf Coast with the remaining RESTORE dollars. The state has already demonstrated a commitment to restoration by initiating a coastwide planning process through a separate pot of oil spill dollars. This process—which thoughtfully engaged local citizens, scientists and business interests—identified water quality, habitat conservation, and fisheries as top priorities. We hope that this effort provides direction for RESTORE Act monies as well.
Furthermore, the settlement will also send $182 million dollars in Natural Resources Damage Assessment fines back to the state. This money — a penalty under the Oil Pollution Act — will be under tighter controls but also bears public scrutiny.
The Mississippi Coast remains an ecological haven for wildlife and one of America’s richest fisheries. Commercial and recreational fishing bring in over $700 million in sales annually. Wildlife tourism—hunting, fishing and birdwatching—support 26,000 coastal jobs.
But the Coast is facing many challenges—lingering impacts from the oil disaster, a long history of water quality and erosion problems, as well as the need to prepare for future hurricanes.
Mississippi’s leaders should use this unique windfall to begin a new chapter for the Mississippi Coast by investing in projects that improve water quality, help buffer coastal communities from storms, rebuild oyster reefs and support our fisheries.
Future generations of Mississippians will thank us for making wise decisions with this money today.
Brad Young is the executive director of the Mississippi Wildlife Federation. Steve Bender is the director of Vanishing Paradise, a sportsmen outreach campaign of the National Wildlife Federation.
Be sure to check out the original letter!