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After oil spill, don't shortchange gulf

Nesting terns and pelicans, left, are seen on Cat Island off Louisiana in May 2010 as oil from the Deepwater Horizon spill began to impact the shore. The photo at right, taken in April 2011 near the same location, shows the shoreline heavily eroded, and the lush marsh grass and mangrove trees mostly dead or dying.

Associated Press

Nesting terns and pelicans, left, are seen on Cat Island off Louisiana in May 2010 as oil from the Deepwater Horizon spill began to impact the shore. The photo at right, taken in April 2011 near the same location, shows the shoreline heavily eroded, and the lush marsh grass and mangrove trees mostly dead or dying.

The network TV news crews may have long since left, but the work of repairing the environmental and economic damage from the 2010 Deepwater Horizon disaster in the Gulf of Mexico is far from complete. During the course of the spill, roughly 4.9 million barrels of crude flowed into the gulf — an amount of oil that, by some estimates, could have heated just over 13,200 American homes for an entire year.

It will likely be years, or even decades, before we know the full extent of the effects of the catastrophe on the regional marine ecosystems. Researchers have documented that populations of herring, clams and sea otters still haven't recovered from the Exxon Valdez spill, which occurred more than 20 years ago. In 2001, more than 48 years after an oil tanker sank off the coast of Point Reyes, Calif., tar balls were found on its shores. The sooner we can dedicate resources toward repairing the damage from last year's disaster, the better equipped regional leaders will be to address the impact of the spill on the health of the gulf's ecosystem.

But more than a year and a half later, despite numerous pledges of support from leaders in Washington, much of the remediation work still remains to be done. Fortunately, a pending bipartisan proposal in Congress, with support in both the House and Senate, could help the region start 2012 off on the right path by creating a new, dedicated source of funding for long-term gulf restoration efforts.

President Barack Obama has repeatedly stressed his commitment to do "whatever is necessary to protect and restore the Gulf Coast." We've heard similar statements from other influential voices. In its 2011 report, the National Commission on the Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill and Offshore Drilling recommended creation of a well-funded, long-term ecosystem remediation plan. This included directing 80 percent of civil and criminal penalties assessed under the Clean Water Act to regional projects. Similar proposals have been featured in findings by the Gulf Coast Ecosystem Restoration Task Force, led by Navy Secretary Ray Mabus.

By reforming how we use penalties generated by enforcement of existing clean water laws, Congress could provide the much-needed funds for gulf recovery efforts. Currently, the Environmental Protection Agency can collect $1,100 per barrel of oil spilled in federal waters, or up to $4,300 if there is a finding of gross negligence from any party responsible. Based on the estimated 4.9 million barrels released during Deepwater Horizon spill, fines could range from $5.4 billion to $21.1 billion.

That's a substantial sum. But under today's law, these dollars are simply directed into the general U.S. Treasury — they do not have to be used for gulf restoration. And in light of the budgetary challenges facing Congress, this pot of money is starting to attract attention from politicians looking to fund other priorities.

In an effort to keep these funds in the gulf region, a bipartisan group of U.S. senators — including members from Alabama, Florida, Louisiana, Mississippi and Texas — introduced in August the Resources and Ecosystems Sustainability, Tourist Opportunities, and Revived Economy of the Gulf Coast Act (RESTORE). The bill would establish a regional environmental remediation trust fund; support the ailing travel, tourism and seafood industries; and create a federal-state council to implement a comprehensive rehabilitation plan for the coast.

Furthermore, the RESTORE Act would establish a science and technology program to focus on, among other things, coastal and marine fisheries research, ongoing water quality monitoring, and recovery efforts for damaged ecosystems. A bipartisan companion bill recently introduced in the House by Rep. Steve Scalise, R-La., with the support of more than 20 other members, also calls for a majority of spill penalty funds to be used for regional remediation initiatives.

Gulf Coast residents and the environment suffered severe losses from the Deepwater Horizon tragedy. It is only right that the region receives the majority of the penalty money from the spill to help fund the massive efforts needed to heal the ecosystem. Congress should pass the RESTORE Act and set the gulf region on the path to recovery.

Martha Collins is a resident of St. Petersburg and a gulf representative for the Pew Environment Group.

After oil spill, don't shortchange gulf 12/18/11 [Last modified: Sunday, December 18, 2011 3:30am]
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