Though most environmental organizations have been enthusiastic about the latest round of early restoration projects from the BP oil spill, several are still asking for more clarity and transparency into how these multi-million-dollar projects are being selected.

Those questions were directed to representatives from several federal organizations June 3 during a public comment period at the Riverview Plaza Hotel in Mobile.

A break down of Natural Resource Damage Assessment funds by state.

A break down of Natural Resource Damage Assessment funds by state.

Those federal trustees represent the U.S. Department of the Interior, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, Environmental Protection Agency and U.S. Department of Agriculture, which were tasked with assigning up to $1 billion in early restoration projects using Natural Resource Damage Assessment (NRDA) funds.

NRDA funds are intended to address the immediate effects of any natural disaster but are required to have a direct connection to the damage — an incident caused through environmental impact or a measurable human loss of use.

Environmental groups have put emphasis on these NRDA projects because they have been the first significant source of cash for restoration outside of BP’s criminal fines. They are also highly scrutinized because they will ultimately offset BP’s final civil penalties, which are expected to exceed $10 billion.

Because the projects are ultimately part of a high-profile lawsuit, the negotiations between BP and the trustees aren’t open, though public input is sought throughout any NRDA-funded project.

When representatives for the NRDA trustees stopped in Mobile last week on a tour of the five Gulf Coast states affected by the spill, they were commended for addressing Gulf-wide restoration in the latest phase of projects and for adding $11 million worth of ecological projects in Alabama.

The names and costs of the projects planned in the 4th round of Natural Resource Damage Assessment funding since the Deepwater Horizon oil spill.

The names and costs of the projects planned in the 4th round of Natural Resource Damage Assessment funding since the Deepwater Horizon oil spill.

Despite the praise, many local and national organizations expressed concerns about transparency.

“I think with these [projects] there’s less information put forward to the public compared to some of the others,” Casi Callaway of Mobile Baykeeper said. “I think a lot of us would like a better understanding of exactly how those projects are going to go forward, but also why they were selected over other projects.”

In addition to the selection process, Callaway said there were also very few details about the materials that will be used in each of the projects — many of which involve structures, such as man-made Osprey habitats, being constructed in environmentally sensitive areas.

Still, Callaway said the projects slated for Alabama were in line with the state’s needs following the explosion of the Deepwater Horizon in April 2010. Of the state’s $11 million in proposed projects, the largest allocation is a living shoreline project on Shell Belt and Coden Belt roads near Bayou la Batre.

That $8 million project would “promote colonization of marsh vegetation and create habitat for oysters, shrimp, crabs, fish and other marine animals.”

According to Bayou la Batre Mayor Brett Dungan — who attended the meeting — it also plays into another project the Bayou la Batre Port Authority is attempting to have funded through future criminal fines related to the RESTORE Act.

“In all of these ecological restoration projects, there’s a shortage of material like marsh grass,” Dungan said. “A big part of the city’s oyster culture project is producing [that type of] oyster sand and aquacultural plants, because all of those projects are going to have be buying from somewhere.”

A break down of Natural Resource Damage Assessment that have been funded since the 2010 Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill.

A break down of Natural Resource Damage Assessment that have been funded since the 2010 Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill.

Dungan said the restoration could turn into an extra revenue stream for the city as more “living shoreline” projects come down the pipeline for RESTORE Act funding. With almost $93 million of shoreline and marsh projects already approved, producing the necessary materials could prove lucrative.

Though Dungan didn’t speak during the public comment period of the meeting, he did tell Lagniappe afterward he supports the Shell Belt Road Shoreline Project and a similar $2.3 million project proposed in Point aux Pins, to the west of Bayou la Batre.

Aside from more transparency, other speakers told the trustees they’d like to see more input from experts in environmental and biological fields in addition to a doubled-down effort to make sure any project selected is directly tied to something damaged by the oil spill.

Cameron Smith, a senior fellow at the R Street Institute, said there’s a tendency with this type of funding for local governments to pursue projects they’ve wanted but couldn’t afford, as opposed to selecting projects that actually address the damage BP caused.

According to Smith, focusing on the actual damage caused and setting long-term sustainable goals for what each project hopes to address could prevent wasteful spending of the NRDA damages.

“We need to look for accountability in the purpose of the projects versus the mere execution of the task contained in the project,” Smith said. “In other words, we need to make sure [where we end up] is the metric for success rather than simply asking, ‘Did the money we gave you to do this project result in the project being done?’”

Like others, Smith also said at least some funding needs to be set aside to maintain the projects in the future after the “one-time infusion” of cash has dried up. According to Smith, not planning for those long-term costs and monitoring could “create an obligation we can’t afford” down the road.

A simplified breakdown of how project submissions become a reality through Natural Resource Damage Assessment funding.

A simplified breakdown of how project submissions become a reality through Natural Resource Damage Assessment funding.

Despite the concerns with transparency and long-term planning, the overwhelming sense at the meeting was that even the most hard-nosed environmental groups were pleased with the latest round of NRDA projects announced in late May, which wasn’t the case in all of the previous rounds.

Some of Alabama’s earliest NRDA funding was almost entirely directed toward the Gulf State Park Project in Gulf Shores. Groups like the Ocean Conservancy spoke out against funding that initiative, and the Gulf Restoration Network ultimately filed a federal lawsuit aimed at stopping the project.

“We’re very excited that these are ecosystem, marine and deepwater projects. This really feels like restoring and I think we’re getting back to the nexus of the injury,” Callaway said. “We’re all excited, we just want to see a little bit more detail moving forward.”