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Gulf Coast Leaders Want BP to Clean Up Its Mess

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Regional leaders at a Gulf Coast Restoration Summit, held in New Orleans this month, said they're relieved that Congress passed the RESTORE Act in June, especially given Washington's gridlock. But they're unsure when money from RESTORE, which devotes 80 percent of BP's Clean Water Act fines for the 2010 spill to Gulf states, will be available. Meanwhile, the coast is grappling with the spill's aftermath, speakers at the August 17 meeting said. Liquid and matted oil linger in coastal marshes, and tarballs continue to wash up in Grand Isle, La.

Louisiana's Jefferson Parish President John Young, Plaquemines Parish President Bill Nungesser and Plaquemines Coastal Director P.J. Hahn said they're tired of BP's oil and litter. That includes metal anchors attached to the seafloor that were left behind when BP's oil-containment boom was removed. "Thousands of these anchors are in our waterways," creating navigation hazards, Hahn said.

Young explained that BP contractors cut the polypropylene lines connecting the boom, but left the anchors in place. He called it an example of BP's lack of followthrough since the spill and "their wanting to say it's over and move on."

Connie Rocko of the Harrison County Board of Supervisors in Mississippi said when the volunteer group Women of the Storm visited Capitol Hill this spring, "they told them 'down South, we're taught that if you make a mess, you clean it up.'"

Hahn spoke of a problem predating the spill and said the oil-and-gas industry needs to remove aging pipelines, some of which are 60 to 80 years old, from the water. "Every day I hear about these old pipes," he said. "They're accidents waiting to happen."

Parish leaders faulted the U.S. Coast Guard for not following up fast enough on reports of oil and tarmats associated with the spill. On several occasions, the Guard told officials it didn't have a boat to check out their concerns.

Meanwhile, Louisiana's Democratic Senator Mary Landrieu, who wasn't at the summit, asked the Coast Guard in a mid-August letter to require that BP remove any oil and spill-response equipment that remain along the Gulf. She wants BP to get rid of large mats of oil buried near the shore.

John Young, a former maritime lawyer, said the effects of BP's gross negligence are widespread. Dispersants and crude oil have taken their toll on Gulf pogey or menhaden -- used in fish oil supplements -- and on shrimp and crabs, he said. "But we don't talk about that much because it might scare people away," he said, and added that he's been eating Gulf seafood since the spill.

Parish leaders noted that Alaska is still suffering from the 1989 Exxon-Valdez spill and said they will lean on BP for as long as it takes to restore the Gulf.

Under the Clean Water Act, BP can be fined anywhere from $1,000 to $4,300 per barrel spilled or between $5 billion and $20 billion. But that money won't be collected anytime soon because the fed's trial against BP doesn't start until January. Meanwhile, Natural Resource Damage Assessment or NRDA funds, which are separate from RESTORE Act money, are already being disbursed for early projects.

Coastal leaders, however, are concerned that it's taking officials and scientists a while to develop NRDA plans. Connie Rocko had a suggestion, saying "if we take all the plans that we've had all these years, we should have a good NRDA plan." The NRDA process, which is guided by state and federal agencies, identifies damages caused by the spill before addressing them.

Nungesser discussed restoration approaches and said people on the coast deserve a voice in them. "We have to quit letting Washington and California environmentalists tell us what to do," he said.

Plaquemines officials plan to build land to protect their parish -- which is a 70-mile-long strip on the Mississippi River, jutting into the ocean -- against storms. In June, the Parish Council approved a bond issue to pump river sediment into open water to build land.

In Jefferson Parish, John Young said "we need ring levees around Lafitte. Last September, flooding during Tropical Storm Lee showed just how vulnerable Lafitte is." The town of Lafitte is 25 miles south of New Orleans.

Louisiana officials plan to allocate the state's share of RESTORE Act dollars through a $50 billion master plan for coastal protection and restoration, approved by the state legislature in May. The plan calls for spending $870 million on an eventual, ring levee around Lafitte.

Louisiana Republican Senator David Vitter encouraged audience members to find ways to keep the pressure on for coastal restoration. He helped negotiate the RESTORE Act in Congress and continues to ask the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to complete levees and other protective structures.

Nungesser said "our fight is just beginning. We have a lot of opportunities to do the right thing now. We can turn a bad situation into a good one if we try."

This was originally published in "The Louisiana Weekly" in the Aug. 27, 2012 edition.

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