State conservation officials have released the first comprehensive report detailing in plain English how billions of recovery dollars from the 2010 BP oil spill are being spent in coastal Alabama.
Compiled by the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources (ADCNR) and Gov. Kay Ivey, the booklet was unveiled Oct. 11 during an event in Spanish Fort. Ivey was scheduled to attend herself but was called away to survey damage from Hurricane Michael. However, in a statement, the governor said she was proud of the work accomplished so far.
“From the restoration of oyster reefs, to the construction of boat ramps and fishing piers, the acquisition of important habitat for conservation and monitoring our fisheries, Alabama has invested nearly $711 million in projects over the past eight years,” Ivey said. “It is clear that restoration is not a small or short-lived endeavor, and as we look back on the previous eight years, we continue to plan for the future.”
The money has funded 122 restoration projects through a number of sources, including three streams set up by the 2012 RESTORE Act and others established through the Natural Resource Damage Assessment (NRDA) and the Gulf Environmental Benefit Fund.
Alabama will receive a minimum $1.4 billion in claims and penalties from BP over the next 13 years, which is why ADCNR Commissioner Chris Blankenship said it’s important Alabamians understand what these dollars have done and will do for the state’s environment and economy.
“We’ve already made tremendous progress in our recovery efforts,” he said. “We have invested in a diverse array of projects, including acquiring lands important for endangered species, building marsh with the beneficial use of dredged sediment, monitoring our fisheries to support sound management and investing in recreational projects and infrastructure.”
The report, which breaks down restoration efforts by their application rather than funding source, indicates Alabama has spent the most of its money — around 37 percent — restoring, conserving and enhancing marine habitats along the coast.
More than $40 million has gone toward habitats critical to birds, fish, shellfish, marine mammals and sea turtles, but no habitat has been prioritized like that of oysters. Since 2011, more than $11.4 million has gone to various and ongoing oyster restoration efforts in Mobile Bay.
However, as Lagniappe has reported, poor water quality continues to impact growth and development, and annual oyster yields — especially for those grown on the bottom of the bay — have remained at near historic lows in many areas since 2008.
Other projects have also helped expand Alabama’s artificial reef program, which over several years has placed hundreds of structures throughout the bay and into the Gulf designed to improve the health and reliance of fish populations and increase fishing opportunities
“Alabama has the largest artificial reef program in the country, and we’ve done a lot of work through this program to help build more reefs and to do research into those reefs and the wildlife that uses them,” Blankenship said. “The [ultimate] goal is to restore more than 140,000 acres of reef habitat in Alabama’s jurisdictional waters.”
So far, the second-largest benefactor of Alabama’s oil spill recovery efforts has been projects enhancing economic development and infrastructure. While some, such as sewer system upgrades, have an environmental impact, other projects strictly benefit economic development.
For instance, the first batch of projects approved for funding with Alabama’s RESTORE Act dollars earlier this year included $56.8 million for road work in Baldwin County and a $29.6 million allocation to help construct a new automotive import and export facility at the Port of Mobile.
Around 18 percent, or $126 million, has gone toward enhancing public access to Alabama’s natural resources, though a $56.3 million chunk of those dollars went to rebuild a hotel and convention center at Gulf State Park in Baldwin County. That project prompted a federal lawsuit by environmental groups, which the state was finally able to settle last fall.
The state has received the most money to fund NRDA projects, around $219 million as of Oct. 1, while the funding stream that has resulted in the least number of tangible projects for Alabama is the one overseen and distributed by the federal Gulf Coast Ecosystem Restoration Council.
That group, comprising the heads of six federal agencies and the governors of the five Gulf states, is tasked with distributing $1.6 billion to fund environmental projects benefiting the Gulf Coast.
Ben Scaggs, executive director of the federal council, also spoke during the recent restoration summit about those gulfwide projects and how Alabama has prioritized its share. He said Alabama is “fortunate” because ADCNR plays a central role in all of its restoration efforts.
“One of the things you should take away from this is the enormous complexity associated with all these funding streams. From the strings attached to each one to the different rule sets for what you can do with those monies, it’s extraordinarily complex,” he said. “You guys are lucky the state made the choice to have the same set of people essentially managing and doing air traffic control on all of them because that is not the case in some of the other states.”
Currently, the most recent restoration development has been the release of Alabama’s state expenditure plan for a suite of 29 projects selected by the state restoration council, but they require approval from the federal council. If approved, they would begin next July.
A public meeting of the Alabama Gulf Coast Recovery Council related to the gulfwide expenditure plan is scheduled for Nov. 7, 6-8 p.m., at the Five Rivers Tensaw Theater in Spanish Fort.
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