With new leadership in Montgomery, the Alabama Gulf Coast Recovery Council has moved into warp speed in recent months as it moves closer to its first selection from hundreds of environmental and economic projects competing for a finite pot of BP oil spill money.

The AGCRC comprises Gov. Kay Ivey, the CEO of the Alabama State Port Authority, the presidents of the Mobile and Baldwin county commissions and the mayors of Bayou La Batre, Dauphin Island, Fairhope, Gulf Shores, Mobile and Orange Beach.

The council is tasked with overseeing the distribution of roughly $800 million between now and 2031 as annual payments are received from BP as part of its $2.3 billion civil settlement with the state of Alabama over the 2010 oil spill.

The money is allocated through the 2012 RESTORE Act — a historic piece of legislation that for the first time allowed the local leaders in an area affected by an environmental disaster to oversee the subsequent recovery effort. In short, the law divides the bulk of BP’s civil settlement into five funding streams commonly referred to as “buckets.” Two of those — Buckets 1 and 3 — are overseen by the AGCRC, which will allocate funds from them to specific projects proposed in Alabama’s coastal counties.

SERIES: RESTORE Act

So far, more than 200 proposed projects have been submitted by private groups, public agencies, municipalities and environmental organizations. They vary greatly in cost and scope, and aim to mitigate environmental and economic losses suffered during the spill.

However, after six years, none of those projects have been funded, but former Congressman Jo Bonner says that’s about to change. Bonner was one of the Gulf Coast legislators who helped pass the RESTORE Act, a feat he said likely could not be accomplished again today.

Bonner, who left Congress to accept a lobbying position for the University of Alabama, was appointed by Gov. Ivey last fall to act as her surrogate on the AGCRC, and since then the group has met monthly and put a greater focus on actually getting a growing war chest of recovery dollars out into the region.

“The council members have been very anxious for this to move forward,” Bonner told Lagniappe. “Some people from other places, they’ve forgotten we ever had an oil spill, but when I speak to the members of the council, every one of them is ready to put their foot on the gas.”

Bonner said one of the first things he did after being appointed by Ivey was to meet with all of the other council members given that several cities, including Bayou La Batre, Fairhope and Mobile, have had leadership changes since the RESTORE Act was passed. Though there have been few if any unanimous votes, Bonner said he’s been impressed with the group’s regional mindset so far.

“The reality is some of these decisions could be made by other mayors and other governors, but hopefully, looking back, this will be judged that the vast majority of these decisions were for the benefit of this entire region,” Bonner said. “If they are, I think the members … can be very proud, but if we focus on just our ZIP code or just our city and county line, then we’ve really missed a great opportunity.”

That could be easier said than done, though, because the list of potential projects contains politically lucrative projects some officials have chased for years. As a former public official, even Bonner acknowledged there are some things “you want to get done on your watch.”

Proposed projects include new roads or right-of-way acquisitions in Baldwin County that would use an estimated $126 million from RESTORE as well as the state’s economic settlement with BP. It got support from every Baldwin County representative on the AGCRC as well as Gov. Ivey, but Mobile Mayor Sandy Stimpson cast the only vote from the other side of the bay.

Another high-dollar project discussed for years is the addition of a $65 million import and export facility for automobiles at the Theodore Industrial Canal.

An Alabama State Port Authority project with a potential statewide impact, it was supported by CEO Jimmy Lyons, Gov. Ivey and every Mobile County representative. It received several Baldwin votes as well, because it is claimed it could help bring a manufacturer to the Baldwin County’s $30 million South Alabama Megasite in Bay Minette, which has remained vacant since it was purchased by the county in 2012.

Based on a study paid for and released by ASPA, the addition of the facility could create as many as 871 jobs and generate millions in state and local taxes, but some environmental groups have questioned the appropriateness of funding it with limited RESTORE dollars.

Last week, Mobile Baykeeper Executive Director Casi Callaway likened road and port projects to pork, suggesting they are better suited to receive federal transportation funding or seek private investment. Instead, she said the AGCRC should focus on water quality and environmental resilience.

“The sewer projects are huge,” she said. “Every municipality has a proposal in front of the council to upgrade septic tanks or upgrade wastewater treatment and those can be transformative for environmental health.”

Asked about the ASPA project’s place among restoration and tourism projects, AGCRC Executive Director Eliska Morgan noted the RESTORE Act expressly provides for “port infrastructure improvements.” She also said it could be “transformational” for the entire region.

“There will be criticism that it’s not all 100 percent environmental- or tourism-based projects, but I think if you asked the Mobile Chamber of Commerce if they were opposed to an [automotive] facility, I don’t think you’re going to get that same criticism,” she said. “It will never be perfect — the council will be criticized by some but applauded by others for the same project.”

There’s no arguing Alabama’s environment suffered as a result of the spill, but Bonner said the economic impacts were just as devastating for businesses and tourism. He also noted that if potential economic losses were excluded, the civil penalties BP must pay Alabama would have likely been much lower.

The RESTORE Act actually addresses the balance between economic and environmental recovery efforts with controls over how much money the AGCRC can spend.

Bucket 1 allows for more projects related to tourism, infrastructure and economic development, while Bucket 3 has a 25 percent cap on infrastructure and a stricter environmental focus. That’s already affected what projects might ultimately see funding first.

Morgan also noted other BP funding streams that, for most part, are purely environmental. To date, more than $278 million in Alabama environmental projects have been completed, funded or approved to move forward, and another $28 million has been allocated from another RESTORE bucket the AGCRC doesn’t oversee.

So far, around 30 projects — all with an “economic focus” — have been evaluated for possible funding from Bucket 1 including the Baldwin road package and ASPA’s automotive facility. Their estimated cost exceeds $413 million, through some would have multiple funding sources.

Before the end of July, AGCRC will choose from those 30 projects to create its first Multi-year Implementation Plan (MIP). For inclusion in the MIP and funding, a project will need to receive at least six votes on the 10-member council.

The council is also currently evaluating 113 projects for funding from Bucket 3. Priced at roughly $138 million, most are environmental in nature or address infrastructure needs with an environmental benefit such as sewer and stormwater upgrades. The Bucket 3 projects should be selected by 2019.

However, included among those projects are the original 30 projects that have already been evaluated for funding through Bucket 1, which Morgan explained was because some of those projects could technically fit into both categories.

“Things like septic tank removals or other good water quality improvement projects might, on the surface, seem like infrastructure — and they probably are in the strictest terms, but they will also improve water quality and because that’s their primary purpose, they would not be counted against the 25 percent cap on infrastructure,” Morgan added.

That’s been a concern for environmental groups because while it may save the limited Bucket 1 money for purely economic projects, it also eats into the limited funding available for other Bucket 3 projects focused on habitat recovery, wetland conservation and shoreline restoration.

Last Friday, a coalition of environmental organizations known as the Alabama Recovery Group fired off a letter to Bonner emphasizing its “triple bottom line” approach to spending the funds, a “broad scale” strategy seeking a balance of economic, environmental and community benefits.

Specifically, the ARG pointed out projects targeting hydrologic restoration, such as the Three Mile Creek Watershed Restoration, which carries a price tag of $40 million, or similarly, stormwater management improvements for Toulmin Springs Branch and Gum Tree Branch, which would cost just $1.27 million, according to the proposal.

These projects, ARG noted, “not only have instream habitat benefits for wildlife, but also downstream benefits to water quality and quantity. In addition, these projects help maintain optimal conditions needed for the success of other restoration projects, such as oyster reef restoration and marsh creation projects in Mobile Bay.”

Similarly, ARG said it prioritizes stormwater and wastewater projects on both sides of the bay.

“By focusing on projects addressing key stressors, we believe the AGCRC can make meaningful investments with RESTORE funds that will ensure restoration of coastal Alabama’s ecology and economy. We believe the AGCRC should prioritize projects that focus on hydrologic restoration, as well as wastewater and stormwater infrastructure.”

The ARG comprises Conservation Alabama, the Alabama Renewal Group, Mobile Baykeeper, Conservation Alabama Foundation, National Audubon Society, Alabama Coastal Foundation, National Wildlife Federation and Gulf Restoration Network.

Kara Lankford, director of Gulf Coast Restoration at the National Audubon Society, explained ARG conducted a telephone poll in December, interviewing 625 registered Alabama voters about how the funds should be spent.

Fifty-four percent of voters statewide and 59 percent of voters in Southwest Alabama responded that funds should be spent primarily on the restoration of wildlife habitats rather than construction projects. Further, the largest percentage of voters chose projects that would restore shorelines to make communities more resilient to storms and reduce coastal flooding, over other projects such as “roads and bridges.”

“We feel like this is something that is going to be helpful to our decision makers as they go to the drawing board,” Lankford said of the poll. “Obviously we know they will consider oil spill impacts, but also we hope they will consider what the community wants.”

Another concern of theirs is that many of the decisions have been made without public input or knowledge. But, as it was created by Congress, the AGCRC exists somewhere in the space between state and federal agencies, and for the most part is self governing. The council is not subject to Alabama’s Open Meetings Act. Council member Tony Kennon, the mayor of Orange Beach, confirmed they were meeting behind closed doors again this week.
Kennon also said, without elaborating, his emphasis is “infrastructure … period.”

Defending AGCRC’s decision to hold closed meetings, which since September have been occurring monthly, Morgan said most get “into the weeds” and deal with council’s policies and procedures. Others, she said, have gone on for hours at a time. When projects are selected for funding later this year, the council isn’t even required to disclose who voted for what, though Morgan said she anticipates those votes will be published.

“I think, with some of the decisions coming up, they’ll have to be a little bit more candid and maybe a little bit more honest, which is hard to do in a room full of a hundred people when you’re trying to to make decisions that affect a whole region,” she said. “It’s like any board or entity. You have to have frank discussions, and sometimes I don’t know how honest they would be if they were in a room full of reporters.”

Lankford urged residents to get involved in the process now before all the decisions have been made by the 10-member council, a group much more exclusive than the Legislature.

“The process may seem a little slow, and now, almost eight years later, people may be a little disconnected from the spill, but money just started flowing last year, so this is the time for them to engage,” she said. “It’s only year two of a 15-year payout period and restoration is just getting started.”

History of the RESTORE Act
When Bonner was pushing for the RESTORE Act’s passage in Congress, he never imagined he’d have a seat at the decision-making table on the Gulf Coast. With a unique insight into both ends of the process, he noted that a lot of things have changed since those efforts started.

In the early days after the spill, Bonner said a bipartisan group in the House and Senate was meeting weekly to figure out how to respond to the worst disaster the Gulf Coast had ever seen — one that was still unfolding.

“There were moments when we didn’t know when this was going to end or how it was going to end,” he said. “Initially they denied there was even oil coming out of the ground. Then they admitted it but were stumped on how to cap it. They were even talking at one point about detonating a nuclear weapon because they couldn’t get it capped.”

He said it took a coalition of legislators from the Florida Keys to South Texas to successfully push the bill through. However, he said one of the downsides of that consortium was that states such as Texas and Florida, which he claims weren’t as impacted by the spill, were included.

“The only oil Florida got was the suntan lotion that washed off tourists because they didn’t have any oil on their beaches, but in order for us to do this we had to build a coalition that was able to stay together, even though there were a lot of times this bill was near death,” he said. “Initially, there was no vehicle to get is passed, but then we had a transportation bill that had to be extended and some of us said, ‘You know what? We’re a big enough block. If you’re not going to work with us, then to hell with it. Nothing is going to pass.’”

Notably, Bonner said none of the Alabamians in the House or Senate envisioned how the state Legislature would ultimately impact what funds would be available for the RESTORE Act.

In 2016, under the administration of former Gov. Robert Bentley, the Legislature voted to take Alabama’s share of the economic settlement with BP as a one-time $639 million lump sum and to put the vast majority of that toward debt and general fund budget gaps in Montgomery.

“One of the biggest disappointments for us, obviously, is that the state — under the previous administration — decided to take a big cut of that money,” Bonner said. “That was never the intent of it, and it shouldn’t have happened, but it did.”

Gabriel Tynes contributed to this report.