After nearly three years in court, the Gulf Restoration Network (GRN) has settled the lawsuit it filed against the state of Alabama over its use of $58 million of BP monies to rebuild a hotel and “convention center” at the Gulf State Park in Baldwin County.
Specifically, the lawsuit was filed against trustees representing a number of federal departments tasked with approving early restoration projects for Natural Resource Damage Assessment (NRDA) funds after the 2010 oil spill.
In their most recent decision, the trustees allocated $58.5 million to the Gulf State Park Enhancement Project. Of that, around $48 million was for the construction of a lodge and conference center — leaving just $10 million for the construction of public access amenities.
The project was temporarily halted last year after U.S. District Judge Charles Butler found its early implementation phases failed to follow laws governing the use of NRDA funding, which is paid by the responsible entity in the immediate wake of an environmental disaster.
Since the 2010 spill, the NRDA process has been overseen by a group of trustees comprising department heads from several federal agencies and representatives from the five Gulf states affected by the spill. It has secured $1 billion from BP for a number of early restoration projects.
In exchange, BP was given credit for those early contributions against its total liability from the oil spill, which means that money was subtracted before the $20.8 billion BP settlement was finalized in a federal court in Louisiana in 2016.
Outside of procedural issues related to the NRDA process, one of GRN’s biggest concerns with the Gulf State Park project was that only a small percentage of the $85 million approved for the project was dedicated to public access to the waterfront and environmental restoration efforts.
With last week’s settlement, GRN’s attorney Robert Wiygul said the state agreed to spend $65 million in the park over the next 20 years on such things as dune maintenance, free parking, public trails, pedestrian paths, research and education facilities and a free tram system.
“This settlement guarantees that public dollars will go to ensuring better public access to Alabama beaches. That’s what was supposed to happen in the first place,” Wiygul said. “In case anybody missed the message, if you try to spend natural resource damage money on things like hotels or convention centers, we will take you to court.”
While the lodge at the center of the lawsuit has already been constructed, the settlement with GRN will ensure state officials maintain public access to lobby restrooms as well as access to the park’s public beach from the lodge itself. It will also prevent the state from building a north-south connector road through the park over the next 20 years — alleviating one of the primary environmental concerns GRN highlighted throughout the course of the lawsuit.
“This is a huge win for Alabamians,” GRN Executive Director Cynthia Sarthou said in a statement last week. “At a time when the state is closing parks and cutting services, this settlement guarantees that BP disaster funds will go toward providing free beach and park access to Alabama residents for the next 20 years.”
Calls to Chris Blankenship, Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources commissioner, seeking comment on this report were not immediately returned. ADCNR was brought into the lawsuit in 2015 because of its role overseeing the project.
When the settlement was approved by U.S. Judge Ginny Granade last week, Blankenship told the Associated Press he was “pleased” with the outcome, adding that it would alleviate some of GRN’s concerns while ensuring public access amenities in the park are “taken care of.”
Despite the back and forth of the lawsuit over the past three years, the state has forged ahead with construction at the park, including a 350-room Hilton hotel that will feature a beachfront ballroom, pool, restaurant and bar.
In Baldwin County last month, Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey told reporters the hotel and conference center would be “a crown jewel” for the state and said the project remains on budget and on schedule to open by fall 2018.
Information about the project and periodic updates are available at mygulfstatepark.com.