Funds For Reviving the Coast Will Be Lean, Even With BP's Infusion

05/16/2011 04:36 pm ET | Updated Jul 16, 2011

An injection of BP funds and continued spending by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers may not be enough to counter decades of erosion along the Gulf, speakers at a Coastal Restoration Financing Briefing in New Orleans said last week. At this post-spill juncture, when residents are bracing for damage from swollen rivers, all stakeholders need to focus on restoration and make sure that funds aren't squandered, experts at a panel sponsored by the Gulf Coast Leadership Forum -- a coalition of businesses, officials and nonprofit groups -- said on May 10 at Tulane University.

BP plans to distribute $100 million each to Louisiana and four other Gulf states in June, out of an initial $1 billion that the company pledged for coastal restoration last month. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the U.S. Dept. of the Interior will get $100 million apiece from that money, and a remaining $300 million will go to NOAA and Interior for projects submitted by the states. Payouts will come from a $20 billion claims fund that BP announced last June under pressure from the Obama Administration.

With the $1 billion, states and federal agencies can begin funding restoration projects this summer, instead of waiting for results from federal, Natural Resource Damage Assessment or NRDA studies, which could take three to five years, or even longer, to complete.

At the Tulane briefing, St. Bernard Parish President Craig Taffaro said "I've been through six Type 1 disasters in the past five years." That does not include current problems with the rising Mississippi River because a disaster has not been declared in St. Bernard to date, he said.

"In the BP crisis, we've had to deal with outdated legislation that no longer applies to the situation" at hand, Taffaro said. The Oil Pollution Act of 1990, for example, could have capped BP's spill liabilities at only $75 million. He said legislation is often based on the most recent disaster, rather than on potential threats. Taffaro took office as parish president in 2008, and before that was District D Councilman during Katrina and Rita.

Taffaro said the La. Office of Coastal Restoration's 2012 Master Plan for the Coast -- an update of a 2007 proposal -- seeks to link projects across the southern part of the state. "Too often, federal and state government agencies operate on their own, territoriality is perpetuated and the agencies don't connect the dots between one another. That's been the case in the ongoing oil-spill response." To restore the coast, partnerships between government agencies and others are needed, he said.

"BP is the responsible party for the spill, and they should absolutely be held accountable and pay for what they did," Taffaro said. "But if we don't address ills from the past -- things we didn't do over the past 50 years -- we won't be successful in restoring the coast."

As for scientists, he said "science has great resources and data but often isn't linked to common sense. Local fishermen could tell you many of the same things about fisheries and the coast long before scientific results are published."

Taffaro would like to see at least some of the boundaries within government erased. For example, a recent, joint study by the U.S. Coast Guard and BP to decide how to remove between 3,500 and 3,800 boom anchors -- hazards left in St. Bernard Parish waters from the BP spill -- was probably unnecessary when fishermen could have been paid $10 per anchor to retrieve them, he said.

Taffaro said science is typically required when large amounts of money are appropriated for coastal restoration projects. And though he has reservations about science, Taffaro would like to see it prevail over politics in coastal restoration. "Politicians want to be reelected and bureaucrats want to perpetuate themselves. Instead of approaching policy by whispering in the Governor's or Garret Grave's ear, let's allow science to dictate what we do from here, and let's trust in technology." Garret Graves is director of Governor Bobby Jindal's Office of Coastal Activities.

Taffaro continued, saying "New Orleans would be a coastal city if it weren't for St. Bernard, which is a buffer for many of you in this room." In 1927, the explosion of a levee at Carnaervon in his parish saved New Orleans from flooding, but inundated much of St. Bernard.

"Today, the Army Corps understands the importance of surge barriers and is using $3 billion appropriated by Congress to build them in Greater New Orleans," Taffaro said. But, he cautioned "the cost of the Corps' projects increases five times before they're finished. At this rate, the Corps will never catch up, and we could soon be building barriers for land that doesn't exist anymore."

Taffaro hopes that, in a similar forum 50 years from now, people won't be asking "remember when we had lower St. Bernard and lower Plaquemines?"

Also speaking at Tulane, Charles Allen III, director of Coastal and Environmental Affairs for the City of New Orleans, said residents need to be fully engaged in the restoration process. After a devastating storm surge associated with Katrina, the Lower Ninth Ward and other neighborhoods demanded that the MRGO shipping channel be closed, and that was achieved, he said. The Army Corps has since released a study aimed at restoring the wetlands surrounding the MRGO. Allen is a former president of the Holy Cross Neighborhood Association in the Lower Ninth Ward.

"Partly because of community pressure, the Army Corps is now very focused on non-structural forms of flood protection in the wetlands, along with structural forms--such as levees and flood walls," Allen said.

Allen continued, saying "communities need to make sure that needs are heard so that resources can be brought to bear." And decision makers have to listen to communities. He said "we must strategize and be prudent about how we use BP monies that have been committed to immediate forms of coastal restoration. This is because tough days and years appear to lie ahead for garnering resources," given the federal budget deficit.

At some point, New Orleans residents might decide they're willing to pay more for flood protection, Allen said. Last November, he was part of a delegation to the Netherlands where, he said, each home contributes to flood defenses.

Allen noted that Orleans Parish is developing a Water Management Strategy, along with St. Bernard and Jefferson Parishes. The study, announced in March, will examine flood control, ground water and water infrastructure, and is funded by a $2 million grant to GNO, Inc. from the La. Office of Community Development and the U.S. Dept. of Housing and Urban Development.

Darrel Broussard, senior project manager at the Army Corps in New Orleans, spoke at Tulane, and said his agency's program areas include Coastal Wetlands Planning, Protection and Restoration Act or CWPPRA; Louisiana Coastal Area Ecosystem Restoration; Beneficial Use of Dredged Material; the Mississippi River Gulf Outlet Restoration; and the Southwest Coastal Louisiana Feasibility Study.

CWPPRA alone has over 140 protection and restoration projects in the planning, engineering, design, construction, or operations and maintenance stages in South Louisiana -- conducted with four other federal agencies and the state. "Total life cycle costs" for those CWPRA projects is projected at $2.48 billion, Broussard said.

The public comment period for the $2.9 billion MRGO Restoration project, to rehabilitate area near the old MRGO shipping channel from Louisiana to Mississippi, just ended. "We received over 27,000 comments and are looking at them now," Broussard said. If the Corps can find a required, non-federal sponsor to share project costs, and if Congress approves the plan and appropriates funding, rehabilitation around MRGO could begin in 2016.

Broussard said the Corps uses material dredged from navigation channels for some of its projects. "The Corps removes an average of 67 million cubic yards of shoal material from eleven navigation channels in South Louisiana annually," he said. "About 33 million cubic yards is suitable and available for beneficial uses."

He said the Corps is engaged in several, river-diversion projects, including the Medium Diversion at White Ditch, a $400 million project on the east bank of Plaquemines Parish, to provide nutrients and sediment to the area between the Mississippi River and the River aux Chenes ridges.

Though not discussed by Broussard, the Bonnet Carre Spillway is operated by the Corps' New Orleans District, with oversight from the the agency's division office in Vicksburg, Miss. The spillway is part of the Corps' multi-state plan, called the Mississippi River and Tributaries Project or MR&T, offering flood protection from Missouri to south Louisiana. Clay extracted from spillway property has been used for levee building in St. Charles and Jefferson Parishes.

When BP restoration funds are given to Louisiana and other Gulf Coast states, the Corps will have design-phase projects that states can participate in through cost-sharing agreements, Broussard said. The Corps' projects typically require a cost-sharing partner.

Lake Pontchartrain Basin Foundation acting director John Lopez, speaking at Tulane, said "with maps, you can see the overlap between areas oiled from the spill and coastal loss. We need to use multiple lines of defense, including flood protection and ecosystem restoration to avoid relapsing into crises," like those stemming from Katrina and the BP spill. The first lines of defense are barrier islands and marsh land bridges, he said..

Federal funds have been approved for rehabilitating the eroded, Orleans Land Bridge between Lakes Pontchartrain and Borgne, and work there could begin within two years, Lopez said. He also pointed to a proposed, restoration project to pump sand from Lake Pontchartrain into North Shore marshes and another to pump sand to enhance berm along the Chandeleur Islands.

Lopez continued, saying "the Pass a Loutre in Plaquemines Parish suffered multiple oilings. The pass is starved for natural discharge and needs dredging to re-open the channel."

He said "Louisiana needs to take ownership of the coastal erosion issue, be responsible and find solutions to funding. The state has to procure more money generated from the oil industry, which has a legacy of environmental impacts here."

Meanwhile, Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La., continues to urge Washington lawmakers to seek accelerated, revenue sharing from offshore oil-and-gas development to help restore wetlands. A year ago, she introduced a bill that would initiate revenue sharing for coastal states immediately, instead of the 2017 start called for under 2006 energy legislation.

This April, Senators Landrieu and David Vitter, R-La., sponsored a bill that would dedicate at least 80% of BP penalties paid under the Clean Water Act to Gulf states for restoring ecosystems and coastal economies hurt by the spill. BP could face over $20 billion in fines based on the number of barrels that spewed into the Gulf.

Nicholas Matherne, director of the Terrebonne Parish Office of Coastal Restoration and Preservation, spoke at Tulane, and noted that Terrebonne means "good earth"--something, he said, that's rapidly disappearing in South Louisiana. And Windell Curole, executive director of the South Lafourche Levee District, said "we spend a lot of time looking at the complexities of the Delta, but don't do much about them."

This article was published in "The Louisiana Weekly" in the May 16, 2011 edition.