A federal lawsuit filed last year in a U.S. District Court in Washington, D.C. was relocated this week to the Southern District of Alabama, where a planned $85 million expansion to Gulf State Park in Orange Beach originally planted the seed for the litigation.
In the wake of the Deepwater Horizon oil 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 funded by BP.
Of the $1 billion BP initially pledged, Alabama received $100 million. That included the $85 million allocated for park project, of which more than $50 million was already set aside for improvements to a lodge on the property.
Though they weren’t the only environmental group to take issue with such a large chunk of the early restoration funding going toward what is essentially an economic development project, the Gulf Restoration Network (GRN) took action in October filing the federal lawsuit against the trustees.Early restoration funds are governed by the Oil Pollution Act (OPA) of 1989 — adopted after the Exxon Valdez accident — which established protocols for using funding resulting from oil pollution. In the complaint, attorneys for GRN suggest the state’s planned “hotel and convention center” at Gulf State Park violates those protocols.
Despite the lawsuit, the project has moved full steam ahead with the University of Alabama now at the helm and Boston-based planning group Sasaki Associations developing a long term plan for the park’s operation after the enhancements.
However, at the behest of the federal and state trustees, a change of venue was granted by District Judge Amit P. Mehta in late March effectively moving the lawsuit to Mobile’s jurisdiction.
In his order, Mehta said the court made the conclusion to move the trial south in the interest of “justice” and so Alabama’s citizens could “decide this controversy at home.” Mehta also said the move would prove to be significantly more convenient for parties and witnesses — which despite arguments from GRN, does include some Alabama players.
For a federal change of venue, the party requesting the move must prove the plaintiff originally could have brought the action in the proposed transferee district. As Gulf State Park is within the Alabama’s Southern District, both parties eventually agreed the case could have been filed in Mobile initially.
The plaintiff also tried to downplay the roles Alabama officials played in the long process to get the project funded, focusing instead on the federal government’s role — specifically the four individual federal trustees.
“Though the District of Columbia’s ties to the decision-making process are significant, those ties are a part of the nationwide, federal and state decision-making mechanism that resulted in the Project’s selection and approval,” Mehta wrote. “Plaintiff’s argument unfairly discounts the role that Alabama-based actors, particularly Alabama state officials, played in the Project’s selection and approval process.”
Mehta went on to rule the Alabama trustees “selected the project, recommended it to the federal trustees and presumably voted for its approval.” With that in mind, he concluded Alabama was not “completely divorced from the decision-making process,” as GRN attempted to argue.
“In summary, the question whether to transfer (the case) is a close one,” Mehta wrote. “What then tips the balance in favor of transfer is the substantial local interest in deciding local controversies at home.”
When asked about the lawsuit last October, Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources Commissioner Gunter Guy — acting on behalf of Gov. Robert Bentley – said he didn’t believe “the lawsuit will slow down anything” because of its original venue and the original defendants named in the complaint.
It’s unclear if the change of venue will have any effect on the project’s progress. Calls to Guy’s office late Thursday afternoon were not immediately returned.