Earlier today members of the Gulf Restoration Network (GRN) filed suit against several federal officials in an attempt to stop further development of the Alabama Convention Center Project using money recovered from BP following the Deepwater Horizon oil spill (DWH).
In the wake of the spill in 2010, the U.S. Department of the Interior, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, Environmental Protection Agency and U.S. Department of Agriculture were tasked with approving early restoration projects using Natural Resource Damage Assessment (NRDA) funds.
Of the $1 billion BP initially pledged, Alabama received $100 million, including $58.5 million which was eventually earmarked for the construction of a hotel and convention center at Gulf State Park, according to the complaint.
Though other environmental groups like the Ocean Conservancy have vocally opposed using NRDA funding for the project, GFN took action today by filing a lawsuit in U.S. District Court in Washington D.C.
“This case is in this Court because the State of Alabama pressed the (NRDA Trustees) to use $58.5 million of the limited funds meant to restore the Gulf Coast’s natural resources to subsidize a convention center and hotel in an Alabama state park,” the complaint reads. “Alabama had tried without success for over a decade to promote this project as a means of economic development.”
The Oil Pollution Act (OPA) of 1989 – adopted after the Exxon Valdez accident – established protocols for using NRDA funding, and attorneys for GRN are asking a federal judge to fault Alabama and the Trustees for violating the Act by including the hotel and convention center project in its third phase of DWH early restoration projects.
Furthermore, GRN claims that Alabama’s request to include the project is mostly “conjectural, and configuration, cost, financing and other aspects of the project remain entirely unknown.”
According to the complaint, the state has openly acknowledged the $58 million of NRDA funding would only cover portion of the restoration project, which GRN has also taken issue with.
“The State of Alabama does not even know if the project makes economic sense,” the complaint reads. “In late 2013, the (Alabama) issued a request for proposals seeking a ‘Market Feasibility Study and a Construction and Operational Cost Estimate’ to be used to determine the market feasibility of the construction and operation of lodging and meeting space in Gulf State Park.”
Attorneys also suggest in the claim that the Programmatic Environmental Impact Statement on the 44 Phase III projects wasn’t adequate enough to be considered a site-specific environmental impact assessment of the Gulf Coast Convention Center project. The claim also says the impact statement provides little or no data to support the “principal justifications for, or anticipated benefits” of the project.
The complaint also takes issue with the fact the project is significantly more expensive than any of the other projects submitted by the state for early restoration funding.
According to its attorneys, GRN has participated in periods of public comment and expressed opposition to the project in multiple opportunites, which is why the organization has chosen to move forward with litigation.
The Gulf Restoration Network is asking a judge to declare the approval of the convention center project unlawful and to order the NRDA trustees not to take any action to supply funds in furtherance of the “Alabama Convention Center Project.”
“By approving this project, the Trustees have violated the public trust and the law,” GRN’s Executive Director Cyn Sarthou said. “The Alabama convention center is a shocking misuse of restoration dollars that could provide much needed resources to the Gulf’s damaged ecosystem. Our coastal communities depend on a clean and healthy Gulf, and these precious restoration dollars cannot be spent on pet projects that don’t do anything to replace the natural resources we lost.”
At this point it is not clear if the lawsuit itself is enough to slow down the development in Gulf State Park. Although ground hasn’t been broken, Gov. Robert Bentley recently tasked the University of Alabama with managing the project, and Requests for Proposals are expected soon.
Calls to Patti Powell, the director of the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources’ State Lands Division, were not immediately returned.