In spite of a federal lawsuit filed last week by the Gulf Restoration Network (GRN) aimed at preventing the project, the state of Alabama is moving forward with plans to build a hotel and “convention center” at Gulf State Park using money recovered from BP after the Deepwater Horizon oil spill.
“We don’t believe the lawsuit will slow down anything at this point, we’re moving on in the normal course of business,” Alabama’s Conservation Commissioner Gunter Guy said Monday. “No one from the state, the Governor, nor BP was named as defendants — only the four federal trustees.”
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, who were tasked with approving early restoration projects using Natural Resource Damage Assessment (NRDA) funds after the 2010 oil spill.
Of the $1 billion BP initially pledged, Alabama received $100 million, including $58.5 million that 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 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 3 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 opportunities, 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.”
However, the state maintains that renovating Gulf State Park and its three miles of beach would be appropriate for NRDA funds. Guy said in addition to ecological damage, early restoration funding also address a human loss of use when it comes to the state’s natural resources.
“It’s a little disappointing when a reputable organization like GRN files this kind of lawsuit,” Guy said. “I think they know what we’re doing here is actually within the boundaries of addressing injuries caused by the oil spill.”
Guy said Alabama’s coast was inaccessible for 87 days after the oil spill, which resulted in lost tourist trips the coast.
“All of the trustees were attempting to address the injuries we knew the most about, which was the early restoration was designed for,” he said. “We knew about the lost trips to the Gulf and those are quantified much easier than our ecological injuries.”
Guy said other states, like Florida, have also used their NRDA funding to address the human loss of use that resulted during the summer of the oil spill and the months that followed.
More than anything, Guy said he’s been disappointed in the way the project has been described as a convention center. While he did say it would be constructed with the capability to host meetings, Guy described the facility as a lodge and likened it to the type of lodges seen in national parks.
“They call it, ‘The Alabama Convention Center project,’ but it’s not a convention center project, despite what was advertised prior to our administration,” Guy said. “This is about building a lodge where people can come and see the park. It’s a great environmental spectacle and unique place, but you can’t go and visit it unless you’ve got a place where you stay near it.”
The GRN sees it differently.
“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.”
Despite the ongoing lawsuit, the state has no plans to slow down the project now that the Trustees have approved the final phase of NRDA funding. Although ground hasn’t been broken, Gov. Robert Bentley recently tasked the University of Alabama with managing the project, and Requests for Proposals are currently being sought.