Gulf states get first $113M from oil spill fines

by Walter Pierce

The grants were announced Thursday by the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation. Louisiana is getting $67.9 million, Florida $15.7 million, Alabama $12.6 million, Texas $8.8 million and Mississippi $8.2 million.

JACKSON, Miss. (AP) - The five states that border the Gulf of Mexico are getting $113 million to improve the environment, the first small chunk of $2.5 billion that BP and Transocean were fined as a result of criminal pleas last year following the 2010 Gulf oil spill.

The grants were announced Thursday by the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation. Louisiana is getting $67.9 million, Florida $15.7 million, Alabama $12.6 million, Texas $8.8 million and Mississippi $8.2 million.

Over the next five years, the foundation's Gulf Environmental Benefit Fund will receive about $1.3 billion for barrier island and river diversion projects in Louisiana, $356 million each for natural resource projects in Alabama, Florida, and Mississippi, and $203 million for similar projects in Texas.

Thursday's announcement spent only part of the first $158 million that the companies paid earlier this year. Another $353 million will be paid by February, but the largest payments will come in later years, said Thomas Kelsch, who leads the Gulf Environmental Benefit Fund for the foundation.

Foundation officials said states would seek further public input before proposing future projects.

Louisiana will use its coastal restoration plan as a guide, foundation officials said.

"There's not a requirement that the funds go directly to the habitats that were affected by the spill," Kelsch said.

In Louisiana, the money will go for planning and engineering to restore coastal islands and divert Mississippi River water and sediment into vanishing marshlands, part of the state's fight to stop its coastline's erosion.

"The work performed with these funds will help to address uncertainties in critical projects related to reconnecting the Mississippi River system with our coast and re-establishing the land building process in south Louisiana," said Garret Graves, chair of the Louisiana Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority Board.

Environmental advocates applauded the $40.4 million for a diversion from the west bank of Mississippi south of New Orleans to the Barataria estuary. That diversion is supposed to be a pilot project that will guide the design of others in the future.

"The Barataria Basin has one of the highest rates of land loss in the world, and this large-scale wetland restoration project is crucial to reversing that trend," the Environmental Defense Fund, National Audubon Society, National Wildlife Federation, Coalition to Restore Coastal Louisiana and the Lake Pontchartrain Basin Foundation said in a joint statement.

Money in other states will generally go to improve natural areas and create better habitats for animals. For example, Mississippi will use $3.3 million to uproot invasive land and wetland plant species in its 26 coastal preserves, replanting with native species.

Alabama will use $6.78 million to try to stop sedimentation caused by suburban development that's making Mobile Bay muddier and killing sea grass beds that are important nurseries for fish, crabs and shrimp.

"There is a long list of projects that remain in need of funding, but this is a major movement forward," Mobile Baykeeper Executive Director Casi Callaway said of Alabama's projects.

In Florida and Texas, foundation officials said they tried to choose projects closest to the spill zone. Projects were generally in Florida's western Panhandle and on the eastern part of Texas' coast.

In Florida, $4.19 million will go to restore oyster beds in Apalachicola Bay, which have been hard hit after drought.

"This is a big step in helping industries that have been particularly hard hit by the oil spill and the economy," said U.S. Sen Bill Nelson, D-Fla.