Almost five years to the day since the Deepwater Horizon explosion, the Natural Resource Damage Assessment (NRDA) trustees overseeing early recovery funds announced 10 new projects across the Gulf of Mexico with almost half of those benefiting Alabama.
The projects, worth an estimated $134 million in total, span the entire Gulf and were announced in April as a part of the fourth phase of planned early restoration projects.
Unrelated to the RESTORE Act, which will delegate punitive damages from the resulting oil spill, NRDA funds address environmental loss acre for acre and are funded through criminal fines assessed to BP in the wake of the 2010 disaster.
Early restoration allows the states affected by the oil spill to jump-start their recovery efforts using up to $1 billion BP has agreed to make available for projects it and NRDA trustees mutually agree upon. In return, BP’s liability is reduced.
The trustees represent several federal agencies and have already approved 54 projects to date at an estimated value of $698 million. If the latest round of identified projects are approved and funded, approximately $832 million of the $1 billion will be obligated.
With some input from BP, the new slate of projects has identified about $134 million in proposed early restoration projects with a number of ecological benefits. Across the Gulf those projects include enhancements to bird nesting habitats, adding protection and nesting areas for sea turtles, improving nearshore and reef habitats and increased recreational opportunities on federal lands.
In the first waves of NRDA funding, several shoreline and wetlands projects were funded including oyster restoration, shoreline stabilization and sea turtle friendly lighting projects here in Alabama.
Though environmental groups were pleased with those types of shoreline projects, Bethany Kraft, director of the Gulf Restoration Program at Ocean Conservancy, recently said the fourth round is finally addressing some of the issues the oil spill caused in the Gulf’s deeper waters.
“Five years on, the emerging impacts beyond the shore of the Gulf are myriad and troubling, from dolphins dying at record numbers, corals covered in oil and millions of gallons of oil sitting on the seafloor,” Kraft said in a press release. “This announcement is encouraging — it is past time to begin restoring our impacted deep-water resources and habitats. Only by addressing restoration in an integrated and comprehensive way — from the coast to the deep water, can our impacted habitats, wildlife and coastal communities fully recover.”
The three deepwater projects Kraft referenced include two Gulf-wide projects and a seagrass recovery project off the coast of Florida. Once such project is a $20 million endeavor that would actually pay fishermen to voluntarily refrain from fishing during certain times of the year.
According to the project’s description, pelagic longline or open-ocean fishing primarily targets yellowfin tuna and swordfish, but results in incidental catches and discards of other fish, including marlin, sharks, bluefin tuna and smaller individuals of the target species. The project would provide participating fisherman with a safer netting alternative and would pay them for voluntarily avoiding open water fishing during the six-month period coinciding with the spawning season of bluefin tuna.
The other deepwater projects are a $45 million sea turtle project aimed at the waters of Texas and Mexico and a $136,000 seagrass recovery project off the coast of Florida.
In Alabama, the largest proposed allocation is a living shoreline project on Shell Belt and Coden Belt roads in Mobile County. According to its description, the project would “promote colonization of marsh vegetation and create habitat for oysters, shrimp, crabs, fish and other marine animals.”
That $8 million “living shoreline” would be constructed by planted marsh grasses in strategic locations and placing structures designed to reduce wave energy parallel to shore near the southern parts of Mobile County. A similar $2.3 million project was also proposed in at Point aux Pins near Bayou la Batre.
The proposed projects also include a $45,000 effort to restore Alabama’s natural osprey population by creating new nesting areas throughout Mobile and Baldwin counties with site-specific predator guards at each one.
Five general areas have been identified for the location of these platforms, including Portersville Bay, Dauphin Island, Fort Morgan, the Little Lagoon area in Gulf Shores and Gulf State Park.
Much to the dismay of several environmental groups, Alabama spent almost all of its $100 million in initial NRDA funding on a single economic development project. The Gulf State Park project, which is currently the subject of a federal lawsuit, is conservatively estimated at $85 million.
In this round, Alabama is only pursuing one recreational project, which would allot $500,000 to the Bon Secour National Wildlife Refuge for enhancements if the new phase of projects is given final approval by the trustees.
A proposed “Jeff Friend Trail” renovation would address lost recreational use at the refuge by rebuilding an aging boardwalk and restructuring the gravel trails that give residents access to the maritime forest and the shores of Little Lagoon.
Kraft said the combination of shoreline and deepwater projects are what groups like Ocean Conservancy has been waiting to see from the NRDA allocations.
“The approach the trustees are taking with these two complementary projects is exactly what we’ve been hoping to see in the five years since the disaster began,” Kraft said. “If we want to restore the Gulf comprehensively, we must focus on both the coast and the deep water – our communities, culture and livelihoods depend on it.”