Despite millions of dollars allocated to recovery efforts through other channels, projects along coastal Alabama might still be more than a year removed from RESTORE Act funding when the state marks the seventh anniversary of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in April.
Because expectations were higher before the $20.8 billion settlement with BP was finalized last year, local and state officials on the Alabama Gulf Coast Recovery Council (AGCRC) are now prioritizing projects that will be funded with a pot of money many have called “disappointing.”
Passed by Congress in 2012, the RESTORE Act was intended to give states directly affected by the spill the authority to allocate civil penalties under the Clean Water Act — bypassing a usual process that would have left that allocation up to the United States Treasury.
BP’s total civil settlement included $5.5 billion in fines, and for its share Alabama is projected to receive $725 million through the RESTORE Act’s five funding streams, which are also referred to as “buckets.”Last week, the AGCRC held its first meeting in more than a year to give an update on the process after a delay that was partially exacerbated by the back and forth in the state Legislature over how to allocate Alabama’s $1 billion economic settlement with BP.
That issue was only resolved in September, after a legislative “compromise” saw $260 million slated for local highway projects reduced to just $120 million, with the rest going to repay the Alabama Trust Fund and plug funding gaps in the state’s Medicaid program.
“[The council] wanted to wait and see what happened with that money. If it was going to any projects in coastal Alabama, they wanted to see what those were going to be because that could have given them more money to work with,” AGCRC Director Eliska Morgan told Lagniappe. “Obviously, there was a hope that more of that money was going to come to this area.”
Now, after years establishing its own policies and procedures, the AGCRC is finally starting to select projects that could receive funding from a wish list of more than 200 local proposals.
The AGCRC is proceeding by developing its first multi-year implementation plan (MIP) for recovery projects that will receive funding through the Direct Component of the RESTORE Act, which is commonly referred to as “Bucket 1.”
According the law, Bucket 1 is one of the three RESTORE Act funding streams over which the AGCRC has control. It’s also one of the few funding sources appropriate for funding “infrastructure, economic development, tourism and planning assistance” projects. The AGCRC voted to prioritize those types of economic projects during the MIP developed during a closed meeting in 2014.
Through BP’s settlement, Bucket 1 is slated to receive a total of $373 million, though it will be in installments paid over the next 15 years.
According to Morgan, only $86 million is available through Bucket 1 today, which means that’s all that would be available if the council decides to go with a one-year MIP. In a three-year plan, $117 million would be available, and in a five-year plan — the longest permitted — the AGCRC would have up to $170 million at its disposal.
So far, no decision has been made on the length of the first MIP, which will largely be determined by the number of projects councilors recommend in the coming weeks. Each of the council members has until Feb. 17 to submit his or her own list of projects.
The comprises Gov. Robert Bentley, Alabama State Port Authority CEO Jimmy Lyons, the presidents of the Mobile and Baldwin county commissions and the mayors of Bayou la Batre, Dauphin Island, Fairhope, Gulf Shores, Mobile and Orange Beach.
According the AGCRC’s own policies, only projects supported by four or more members will move on to further, third-party evaluations. Projects that survive will be added to the draft MIP, which then has to be approved by the U.S. Treasury Department before individual grants can be awarded for approved projects.
“Our hope would be that we will have a final plan by the end of the year, but I don’t want anybody to think that’s a given,” Morgan said. “If all goes smoothly as we have the Treasury review them and can get money going, an optimistic time frame [on projects getting funded] might be sometime in early next year, and that’s being very optimistic.”
Morgan said those working to implement the RESTORE Act for the Department of Conservation of Natural Resources have made the observation that “there are dog years, and then there are oil spill years.”
However, after navigating a mountain of regulatory hurdles, even some of those on the council are unhappy about the amount of time it’s taking for funding to find its way to local projects.
“After Feb. 17, I recommend we come back and go to work,” Orange Beach Mayor Tony Kennon told his collages on the AGCRC. “This has drug on way too long already.”
In the meantime, the impending deadline has caused environmental, civic and private organizations to step up efforts to gain support for their respective projects. Last week several people addressed the council about the overall process, while others offered a last-minute pitch.
The most widely supported projects among local environmentalists were those with a “triple bottom line” — meaning they benefit the “environment, the economy and the community.” Casi Callaway, executive director of Mobile Baykeeper, “reminded” the council that the 2010 oil spill was only an economic disaster because it was first an environmental disaster.
“Some of the projects we’ve seen that give us caution are those that directly and privately benefit one individual company or organization. We don’t think that’s what this was intended to do,” she said. “There was a community-wide impact, and the money should go to making an impact that’s community-wide.”
However, with the 221 proposed projects totaling more than $2 trillion and a maximum of only $170 million available for the first MIP, the challenge of aligning the priorities of 10 public entities and multiple coastal communities is about to get very real for the AGCRC and its members.
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