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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Spill Could Pick up Restoration Bill

Air Date: Week of

The BP disaster might have brought the worst oil spill in U.S. history into the backyard of Gulf states, but it may also bring them the money needed to begin restoring the coast. A new federal report envisions BP's Clean Water Act fines, estimated at $20 billion, funding long-term plans to make the Gulf's wetlands and ecosystems healthy again. Host Bruce Gellerman talks with Aaron Viles, the campaign director for the Gulf Restoration Network, about the plan and challenges to its implementation.


GELLERMAN: Now that the BP Deepwater Horizon oil well has been killed, how do we keep the Gulf of Mexico alive? That’s the fundamental question addressed in a just released report by Navy Secretary Ray Mabus. President Obama designated the former Mississippi governor to come up a plan for the long-term recovery of the Gulf coast after one of the worst environmental catastrophes in the nation’s history. Aaron Viles is the campaign director for the Gulf Restoration Network. The conservation group is based in New Orleans – and Mr. Viles, welcome to Living on Earth.

VILES: Thanks for having me.

GELLERMAN: In the introduction to his 126-page plan, Mr. Mabus says, and I quote, “America needs the Gulf. America needs the Gulf to be clean. America needs the Gulf to be healthy. America needs the Gulf to be sustainable.” And yet, you know, we’ve been insulting and injuring the Gulf for decades!

VILES: Right. Clearly, the BP drilling disaster is not the first time the oil industry has negatively affected the Gulf. It’s not the first time we’ve had a crisis, I think, worthy of the nation’s attention, but I think it’s certainly is, with this report, the first time that we’ve seen a very clear vision for national investment in the Gulf of Mexico, and in its restoration. And, that’s why we are, certainly, are pleased to see it released.

GELLERMAN: Well, lets talk about the report and what it suggests. What are the major findings?

VILES: What we like about the report is that it lays out some very clear principles: healthy coast wetlands and barrier shoreline habitats, fisheries that are healthy, fish populations that are healthy and sustainably managed, and more sustainable storm buffers out there for the Gulf. And then inland habitats as well, inland watersheds, which really do drive a lot of the ecological problems in the Gulf of Mexico, that those are healthy and well managed. So, I think they got their arms around all of it, as far as the principles, but I think for every plan, what’s really important is what comes out of it.

GELLERMAN: Well, action takes money. What I find ironic is that this disaster, and the money from this disaster could be the silver lining, or the gold lining.

VILES: Yeah, I think that is interesting- there’s an irony there. You know, the oil and gas industry has been treating the Gulf of Mexico as really a sacrifice zone, or a dumping zone for years, for decades. And now their biggest screw up ever could actually provide, really, the resources to jumpstart the restoration and recovery to deal with the legacy down here.

GELLERMAN: So, the funding for this will come from the fines that the BP oil company will have to pay then?

VILES: That’s what this report envisions. The cleanup money, that’s just BP has to spend it. They’ve got to clean it up, and they’ve got to just keep spending the money. But, this report envisions the Clean Water Act directing some of the fines and penalties to this recovery plan.

GELLERMAN: What are we talking about, bottom line figure?

VILES: What we do know, is that the fines and penalties for what BP has done in the Gulf, and you know, the historic barrels of oil that have been discharged, that could rack up as much as 20 billion dollars in fines and penalties if the department of Justice aggressively goes after BP for all of them. But, you know, clearly, that’s a lot of money. Wherever you come from, that’s a lot of money.

VILES: So, what’s the total cost then of restoring the entire coastline- do you have a guesstimate on that?

VILES: Well, it’s certainly a guesstimate, what we know is that in Louisiana alone, where our coastal marshes are disappearing, or they’re degraded, they’re falling apart really because of oil and gas and what we’ve done to the Mississippi River- that crisis alone can cost anywhere from 14 to 100 billion dollars to fix. You add in the other impacts that we’re talking about here- you know, clearly 100-200 billion dollars to really answer the call here to fix what’s broken with the Gulf and make it sustainable again.

GELLERMAN: So, now it’s up to Congress. They have to approve this plan and accept it?

VILES: Absolutely. We need Congress to act, and I think that’s one of the biggest challenges, because clearly Congress is wrapped up in lots of stuff. So as we watch, the kind of, oil disappear to a degree, although it’s not all gone there’s a lot out there in the water column, and we’re going to be dealing with it for years- if the media perception is that it’s gone, and the media moves on to the next disaster du jour, Congress is not going to have that same sense of urgency- because they’re not going to be hearing from, you know, outraged people.

And we know that, if you look at the history of Congress, they seem to respond best to outraged people. And that’s something that, you know, we’d like to see Congress act as soon as possible. And hopefully the administration will have some sway left and urge them to do this very thoughtful, very principled thing, which is direct these revenues down here to implement this plan.

GELLERMAN: You know, the Walton Family Foundation came up with a bipartisan poll, just recently, and they found that 75 percent of the people in the region, in the Gulf states, say the Feds should play a significant role in the restoration. I found that curious.

VILES: Well, I think the folks down here, as much as there’s an emphasis on local control and local guidance, they understand that with a resource as big as the Gulf- and you know, we’ve got all five Gulf states engaged in it- and when a crisis like the BP disaster happens- you’ve gotta have a big entity step in and take action. And I think that’s what you’re seeing with this poll, is that the public knows it’s a big problem and we’ve gotta get the government engaged here to really commit and see through the plan.

GELLERMAN: You’ve seen disasters come and go, you’ve seen plans come and go. Are you getting a little tired of this?

VILES: There’s certainly a disaster fatigue. And as I sat here last night going through this plan, there’s certainly the cynical side of me that says, ‘oh, I feel like I’ve seen some of this language before.’ And, you know, the last five years have been rough for the Gulf of Mexico. And, we’ve seen a lot of federal and state collaborative agencies and efforts put together plans. And, we’ve got a lot of paper gathering dust right now. So that, I think, is ultimately- that’s arbiter of whether this is a useful endeavor, is whether we get action. And so that’s what we’re going to be very focused on.

GELLERMAN: Aaron Viles is campaign director for the Gulf Restoration Network. Mr. Viles, thanks a lot.

VILES: Thank you.



Read Navy Secretary Ray Mabus' recommendations here

Click here for more on the Gulf Restoration Network


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