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Senators Landrieu, Rubio and Boxer rail against logjam in RESTORE spending

U.S. Senator Mary Landrieu of La. spoke back in 2007 regarding restoration post-Katrina
U.S. Senator Mary Landrieu of La. spoke back in 2007 regarding restoration post-Katrina
Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images

The problem is clear: money is being delayed in helping people of the Gulf, and concerned Senators and others with a vested interest are worried that politics is stymying real environmental help.

The U.S. Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation’s Subcommittee on Oceans, Atmosphere, Fisheries and Coast Guard held a hearing Tues., July 29, in which they reviewed how Gulf of Mexico restoration dollars will be spent and when.

During “Revisiting the RESTORE Act: Progress and Challenges in Gulf Restoration Post-Deepwater Horizon,” Senators reviewed ongoing implementation of the 2012 RESTORE Act, as well as the implementation of the Gulf Environmental Benefit Fund. As is pointed out on the Senate committee website, the Senators in attendance were "building upon the Committee’s June 2013 hearing, “Gulf Restoration: A Progress Report Three Years After the Deepwater Horizon Disaster.”

Witnesses from the Department of Commerce, Gulf states, and others with a vested interest in Gulf restoration also attended including Deputy Secretary of Commerce Bruce H. Andrews, Justin Ehrenwerth of the RESTORE Council, Trudy Fisher of the Mississippi Department of Environmental Quality, and Thomas E. Kelsch of the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation's Gulf Environmental Benefit Fund.

Louisiana Sen. Mary Landrieu (D) was praised by Committee Senior Member Senator Bill Nelson (D) of Fla. who called her "the spark plug" who "did not let up" in getting the RESTORE Act passed.

In a webcast also on the Senate website, Sen. Landrieu spoke first, passionately insisting that Louisiana is "ready" to go when it comes to restoring its coast. "We've had a plan for 30 years, not just 30 months," she railed. "We don't want to wait any longer," she said, indicating that if other states weren't ready that is another matter. "I would urge Congress to read our plan and start funding these important projects."

Sen. Landrieu, who cited a jaw-dropping statistic -- that there have been 40,000 oil wells drilled in the Gulf over time -- was very clear in her assertion that the 80 percent of Clean Water Act penalties (yet to be determined) to go to Gulf states coastal restoration, fisheries, wildlife and marine life must be used not only effectively but expeditiously.

She closed by saying that as the committee moves forward, they must act "without regard for state boundaries. That was what was intended by Congress, particularly for Pot Two [the 80 percent of funds allocated directly for Gulf restoration and distributed to all five states].

Louisiana Jr. Sen. David Vitter (R) pointed out that his state absorbed one and a half times the amount of oiling as any of the other Gulf states, over 671 miles of coastline. He was an original co-sponsor who "worked diligently" he said to get the ball rolling back in 2011 to push the RESTORE ACT through.

Sen. Barbara Boxer (D), Calif., was recognized as a major proponent of this Act, and spoke third. She said she wanted to make sure that the Act was followed to the letter. She said this "far-reaching" bi-partisan agreement was designed to go to restore not only the Gulf's ecosystem but its economy. "Not one, but two," she stressed, perhaps a nod to Republicans who've stymied a strictly environmental approach.

"The impacts to fish and wildlife are still being felt," she said, pointing out that dolphins and fish are still being affected, according to scientists, a fact that Sen. Nelson mentioned in his opening remarks when he cited long-term problems with the kilifish population. The "funding has to go where it's needed most," she stressed, siding with Sen. Landrieu by saying that there is money already waiting to be spent. She said the Gulf coast residents need help now, and a "project-by-project" list has been held up in Congress for over a year.

Floria Jr. Sen. Mark Rubio (R) passionately spoke out against the use of Corexit in the Gulf. "We were told they were safe, but already, some of the claims that were made four years ago have proven not to be true, and there is simply not enough research or data to tell people [they are safe] with the level of certainty we hear from the industry." He said "trace elements" are still being found in tarballs along the Fla. coast, even though "we were told they would dissolve when in contact with water."

In response to Tuesday's Senate hearing, U.S. environmental groups including the Environmental Defense Fund, National Wildlife Foundation and National Wildlife Foundation issued a joint statement:

The communities and ecosystems of the Gulf have waited long enough for meaningful restoration. Next year we mark the tenth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina and the fifth anniversary of the start of the oil spill.

We appreciate the oversight by the Senate Commerce Committee and Gulf Coast Senators and agree with the major points echoed by Sens. Landrieu, Nelson, Rubio, Vitter, Wicker and Boxer, on the RESTORE Act. First, the Senators made clear that they expect the RESTORE Council to follow the statute’s clear direction to use its allocation – also known as Pot Two – to restore the Gulf ecosystem and not stray from that focus. Second, the Senators and witnesses also stressed the need to speed up the pace to get money on the ground to start moving forward with Gulf restoration.

We look forward to continue working with the RESTORE Council to get money on the ground for meaningful restoration.”

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The RESTORE Act is overseen by the Gulf Coast Ecosystem Restoration Council, which is comprised of all governors from the five Gulf States as well as the Secretaries from the U.S. Departments of the Interior, Commerce, Agriculture, and Homeland Security as well as the Secretary of the Army and the Administrator of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. President Obama appointed the Secretary of Commerce as the Council’s Chair.

Clean Water Act penalties could reach as high as $21 billion, and will be determined sometime following the Jan. 20, 2015 start date for the final phase of the Deepwater Horizon civil trial in Federal Judge Carl Barbier's court here in New Orleans.

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