There are several funding components to the $20.8 billion settlement between BP and the five states affected by the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, but across the Gulf Coast the largest by far is the Natural Resource Damage Assessment (NRDA).
The details of the $8.8 billion settlement through NRDA were disclosed for the first time earlier this month when a consent decree detailing BP’s total settlement was released for public comment.Separate from company’s criminal fines, the RESTORE Act and individual lawsuits brought by the five affected states and dozens of individual municipalities, the NRDA process distributes a settlement obtained from BP in a civil suit brought by the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) under the Oil Pollution Act.
On Oct. 26, NRDA trustees held one of five required public meetings in Mobile to gather input from residents and further explain how its process plays into the total restoration of the Gulf Coast.
“Payments from NRDA must be used to restore or replace natural resources or their uses that were injured in the spill,” Rachel Hankey, an attorney with the DOJ, said. “Nationally, it’s by far the largest chunk of funding.”
Because of NRDA’s ties to lost resources or the lost use of those resources, it will not be divided equally among the five Gulf states. In the proposed consent decree, states that experienced more measurable damage are slated to receive more funding. In Alabama, NRDA should fund about $296 million in restoration efforts, which include the $117 million the state already received in early restoration funds — the majority of which ($85 million) were allocated to the Gulf State Park Enhancement Project.
Louisiana, with a much longer shoreline soiled to a greater degree, will receive a $5 billion allocation. Determining each state’s level of “damage” under NRDA was a process that began immediately following the spill.
Over the past five years, NRDA trustees — representing several federal agencies and each of the affected states — have organized and conducted more than 20,000 trips to collect data, taken more than 100,000 samples and compiled more than 13 million records detailing what was lost as a result of the Deepwater Horizon explosion and spill.
“Probably the largest ecosystem affected [in Alabama] would be the nearshore. That’s your shoreline and wetlands — oysters, shrimp, nearshore fisheries and birds,” said Bob Haddad, a representative of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) who co-chaired the damage assessment team. “Obviously, our role is the lost natural resources. Our job is is make those claims on behalf of the public as a whole.”
The pending consent decree combines the results of multiple lawsuits including $14.9 billion in civil penalties ordered against BP. It does not include the $2.54 billion in criminal fines BP and Transocean have already begun paying nor the $5.9 billion in settlements BP has agreed to with the individual states.
Speaking for the DOJ, Hankey said moving forward with the consent decree now has a number of benefits for the Gulf Coast, including the removal of uncertainty. She also added that the proposed settlement with BP is “by far the largest payment that’s ever been made under the Clean Water Act.”
“We did not know what figure the judge would give us as a civil penalty and now we know. We don’t have to worry about that figure going up on appeals and perhaps back down for more ligation,” Kankey said. “Further litigation would have delayed payment. Here we know what we’re getting and when.”
The public will have until Dec. 4 to submit their input on the consent decree and the planned allocation of NRDA funds. Then the decree will be submitted to a federal judge in Louisiana for final approval.
Eventually, money will start flowing into the RESTORE Act and to the NRDA trustees in yearly installments over the next 15 years. In Alabama, that equates to roughly $11 million per year through NRDA and about $29 million a year through the RESTORE Act.
Though it does have restoration goals, NRDA funding is not slated for specific projects in the trustees’ implementation plan. Like RESTORE Act funding, it will be allocated to selected projects by Alabama’s Trustee Implementation Group, a body comprising state and federal representatives.
While projects haven’t yet been identified, there are specific goals in the NRDA plan that have allocations associated with them. For instance, in Alabama, $20 million is set aside for comprehensive planning while $65 million is earmarked for wetland and coastal restoration.
Those funding levels can be altered, but there is oversight built into the process. An attorney with NOAA told Lagniappe changes to those funding levels would require a vote from all the NRDA trustees, but others could require further action in court.
Another set allocation is $25 million set aside for enhancing recreational opportunities in Alabama — something that drew the attention of Mobile Baykeeper Director Casi Callaway during her public comments.
“We need to make sure the additional $25 million set aside for lost recreation activities is not put toward the Gulf State Park area,” Callaway said. “There’s currently about $135 million going to to that area alone, and we need to make sure we’re spreading this money around to lots of different areas.”
Like several others at the meeting, Callaway asked that the public comment period be extended into 2016. She said two months is not enough time to adequately review the 1,400-page plan the NRDA trustees have put together outlining the damage and suggestions for recovery.
Despite that concern, Callaway praised the work of the trustees since the spill occurred.
“It feels good to actually know the impact of what we’ve been worried about. It’s important we start telling the public what is going on and what went on. There were injuries — traumatic injuries,” Callaway said. “We absolutely make sure that what we spend these funds on is a generational change. Not something trivial, but something real and lasting for our community.”