07/23/2012 01:19 pm ET Updated Sep 21, 2012

Louisiana Coastal Director Says BP Must Pay To The Max

(This article was published in "The Louisiana Weekly" in the July 23, 2012 edition.)

Garret Graves, chairman of Louisiana's Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority, said last week "we will not allow BP to walk out of here, wiping its hands" of the company's responsibilities. He spoke at a July 18 forum sponsored by the City of New Orleans and The National Wildlife Federation on protecting the region from the spill's aftermath, weather threats and a shrinking coastline.

Speakers discussed the RESTORE Act, signed into law by President Obama on July 6. Under it, 80 percent of the Clean Water Act penalties that BP must pay will be devoted to restoration in Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Florida and Texas.

Wes Kungel, regional representative for Louisiana Senator Mary Landrieu, said CWA penalties against BP should total between $5 billion and $21.5 billion based on fines of anywhere from $1,100 to $4,300 per barrel and an estimated 4.9 million barrels spilled. Kungel didn't mention it but BP may also have to pay for methane gas that leaked from its well. BP won't have to cough up much for awhile, however, because levying of CWA fines awaits the outcome of a federal trial starting in New Orleans in January, or a possible settlement with the company before that, Kungel said.

Eventually, BP will have to fork over fines that might be levied under the Endangered Species, Marine Mammal Protection and Migratory Bird Treaty Acts.

Because the company faces multiple penalties, along with compensation from the Natural Resource Damage Assessment process or NRDA, "we could be looking at as much as $130 billion in money from BP," Graves said. Under NRDA, governed by the Oil Pollution Act of 1990, Louisiana will receive reimbursement for natural resources harmed by the spill.

The state is counting on BP money to pay for much of its 2012 coastal master plan, approved by the legislature in May. The plan--the work of officials, coastal experts, academics and the public--is intended to stop land loss and will cost $50 billion over 50 years.

Graves discussed the spill's effects, and said it's unclear what dead dolphins and anomalies with oyster and shrimp signify and too soon to know the impact of the 2010 disaster. Two weeks ago, a big tar mat was found in Grand Isle, La. he noted. Graves said Gulf seafood could be fine, but it may not be. If that sector suffers extended effects, as Alaska's herring did after the 1989 Exxon Valdez spill, coastal communities, and the state's seafood vendors, restaurants and tourism will be hit too.

When asked, Graves said Gulf oystermen should not be required to sign final releases in claims settlements. "It's too soon for that," he said. "If oysters are in decline three years from now then oystermen are toast."

Regardless of what happens in the settlement process, the state won't give BP a final release anytime soon, Graves said, meaning it wants the right to pursue BP if necessary. "There will be a robust reopener," he said. Reopener clauses are for spill-related injuries that might surface down the road.

Graves and Kungel said Louisiana is expected to receive a greater share of BP's CWA penalty money than other Gulf states. "All the metrics--of heavy oiled coastline, barrels spilled, dead dolphins, dead birds--indicate that Louisiana took 60 percent to 90 percent of the brunt of the spill," Graves said.
When asked about Corexit, Graves said it was only sprayed in federal waters. However, that didn't jive with past reports from fishermen and others who said they'd seen it sprayed directly into marshes to disperse BP oil.

As for projects at the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, New Orleans District Commander Colonel Ed Fleming said Congress gave the agency $14.6 billion for hurricane and storm risk reduction in New Orleans and Southeast Louisiana after Katrina. So far, $10.8 billion of that has been obligated or committed. The Mississippi River Gulf Outlet or MRGO, also known as Hurricane Alley, was closed in 2009. A new, 133-mile hurricane protection system for greater New Orleans should be completed by late 2012. The Corps met a requirement to have 100-year defenses--or protection from a storm with a one percent chance of occurring annually--in place by mid-2012.

The Corps has built levees, flood gates, surge barriers and other structures in greater New Orleans since Katrina, and the protection offered is based on modeling of past storms. "Multiple storms have told us how high to build," Fleming said. The Inner Harbor Navigation Canal-Lake Borgne Surge Barrier is the Corps' biggest civil-works project ever, and the West Closure Complex contains a massive drainage pump station and sector gates south of Harvey, La. Those projects are visible to the public even if no one outside the Corps can remember their names.

The Corps plans to armor the levees by placing turf or concrete slabs on their protected sides. "At some point, we're going to have a bigger storm, and the levees could overtop," Fleming warned. Hurricane Katrina is generally considered to have been a 400-year storm.

Fleming joked "I have a love-hate relationship with Garret Graves. I love Garret but he hates me." The Army Corps and the state collaborate on coastal planning but sometimes disagree. On the armoring issue, the state's CPRA believes that new walls should be placed on the tops of levees, instead of putting turf on their sides.

Over $2 billion worth of hurricane-and-storm, risk-reduction contracts have been awarded to small businesses since Katrina, and Fleming urged businesses wanting to work with the Corps to look at the agency's website and apply. He said the Corps is spreading the word about its work by speaking to community and church groups and schools. When an audience member said her boyfriend and her neighborhood bar aren't aware of just how serious threats to Louisiana's coast are, Fleming said "I'd be happy to come and talk to your bar."

Graves said "60 million years ago, we were under water. It took millions of years for Louisiana's land mass to be built from Mississippi River sediment." But he said it took only 80 years for the Army Corps to mess that up.

Graves conceded that "New Orleans has the best protection system today that it's ever had" because of the Corps' recent projects. Yet more needs to be done. "River sediment is mostly wasted now and the state's master plan calls for reconnecting the river," he said. "The plan calls for more holistic management. In the last year, we've started to see a little, net land gain. We can turn things around." In the outflow of the Atchafalaya River, which is less controlled than the Mississippi, the Wax Lake delta marsh in south Louisiana is growing.

Under Louisiana's coastal master plan, diversions or funneling of fresh river water will be used to capture sediment. "We'll put diversions where we can maximize sediment and land building," Graves said. "We'll avoid homes and business." Oystermen, shrimpers and homeowners are among the critics of siphoning off river water into marshlands.

Graves said people have asked how they can help since Katrina, and he welcomes input from the public. "In China they built a great wall," he said. Though Graves didn't say so, soldiers, citizens and criminals are among those who built the Great Wall of China more than two millennia ago.

Fleming advised New Orleans residents not to be complacent now that they're better protected and to follow any orders to evacuate before a hurricane. end