GRN’s Executive Director Cynthia Sarthou speaking at the release of “Sunshine on the Gulf” with, from left to right, Nathalie Walker (Advocates for Environmental Human Rights), Jill Mastrototaro (Sierra Club), and Rev. Tyrone Edwards (Zion Travelers Baptist ChurchOver a year and a half into the BP oil drilling disaster, restoration seems to come too slow. Even as we see oil uncovered by successive storms, the Coast Guard has declared the Gulf coast "clean," Congress has yet to act to direct BP's fines to the Gulf, and we rely on the laws written after Exxon-Valdez with Alaskans in mind to restore the Gulf of Mexico.
One of the main tools for restoration under the post-Exxon-Valdez laws is the Natural Resource Damage Assessment (NRDA), a scientific and legal process by which federal and state officials, as well as BP, assess the damage caused by the disaster and decide how much and how BP will pay to restore this damage. As you can probably guess, this is a long and complicated process that could drag on for years and years. In order to ensure that coastal communities and the environment get some help a little sooner, the NRDA trustees (state and federal officials) and BP entered into a $1 billion early restoration settlement. This initial agreement will reduce BP’s future fines under NRDA.
Unfortunately, there are a lot of questions about how this unprecedented early restoration will move forward. Many states are looking towards existing projects and programs; but are these projects being prioritized in a way that ensures rapid restoration of the ecosystems impacted by BP’s oil? This agreement allows BP a lot of power over NRDA dollars—how do we know the Gulf will not be shorted?
Following the Gulf Future Action Plan, a working group of activists and community leaders from each of the five states has evaluated hundreds of NRDA projects according to the Gulf Future goals: ensuring Public Health, rebuilding the Environment, developing a sustainable Economy, Monitoring the damage, and Participation in the restoration process.
In November, GRN and other members of this working group released "Sunshine on the Gulf," a report examining what projects are slated for early NRDA monies and why. As an example to the trustees, the report uses prioritization criteria that highlight the needs of the Gulf’s communities and environment.
One purpose of the report is to show how easy it is to be transparent. Second is to show that the trustees can’t just check the box for “community participation” by holding a public meeting. Coastal communities demand real input into the process—the only way to ensure the process works for us.
Louisiana has released its project list, focusing on projects within the geography of damage that are “shovel-ready.” They largely meet the minimum legal criteria under NRDA. But real restoration demands that environmental projects also build jobs, specifically for those put out of work by BP. The Gulf Future criteria would elevate those projects that address this additional need, because the status-quo hiring practices are not enough.
One example of this in Louisiana is the planting project from Restore the Earth Foundation, which scores points by allowing the public to participate in restoration. This progressive project plants salt marsh grasses and mangrove trees with organic compost and oil-degrading microbes in front-line ecosystems hard-hit by both BP's oil and coastal erosion. The plantings have environmental value to offset damage to marshes and birds killed by BP, but also hires local shipping barges and creates wetland advocates from engaged volunteers who plant.
In the wake of BP’s disaster, how can the Gulf succeed? The Gulf Future goals are the way we the people of the Gulf define restoration and we hope that the NRDA trustees will listen.
Scott Eustis is GRN's Coastal Wetlands Specialist.