The Deepwater Horizon Natural Resource Damage Assessment (NRDA) Trustees approved the third and largest phase of BP’s early restoration funds Oct. 3, making nearly $627 million available for 44 projects across the Gulf Coast.

However, some environmental groups, including the Ocean Conservancy, are upset that 85 percent of early restoration money coming to Alabama is already earmarked for Gulf State Park Enhancement Project.

BP initially pledged $1 billion in early restoration funds to address the ecological and economic damage caused by the Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill in 2010, which has been accomplished through projects reviewed and approved by the NRDA trustees.

In Alabama, that meant $100 million was made available for projects approved by the trustees, who were outlined in the Oil Pollution Act (OPA) in 1989 after the Exxon Valdez accident and comprised several federal and state agencies. In Alabama, representatives from the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources and the Geological Survey of Alabama were also appointed as trustees.

Significant public input was gathered during the development of the Early Restoration Plan and the Early Restoration Programmatic Environmental Impact Statement. The plan has guided the initial funding from BP, which has been dispensed in three separate phases beginning in 2012.

Phase III of the Early Restoration Plan sets a strategic approach for the largest phase of early restoration activities and for Alabama, it means the final hurdle has been cleared for more than $93,000 of projects first teased by Gov. Robert Bentley in 2013.

The list includes the $85 million enhancement project at the Gulf State Park in Gulf Shores, which according to NOAA, is part of $230 million (37 percent) of the total Phase III funding aimed at addressing lost recreational services that resulted from Deepwater Horizon.

Other similar projects include the Galveston Island State Park Beach redevelopment in Texas and other park projects in Louisiana.

However, several environmental organizations and members of the public have been outspoken about Alabama’s use of the NRDA funding. On Oct. 3, the Ocean Conservancy released a statement immediately following the trustees’ approval blasting the decision to move forward with the Gulf State Park Project.

“This project has the potential to harm the precious natural resources of a beloved state park, and yet our recommendations to protect Alabama’s wildlife were dismissed,” Ocean Conservancy’s Interim Director of the Gulf Kara Lankford said. “Further, this record of decision contains no new information that would suggest additional thought went into the 2,400 public comments that were provided.”

Lankford went on to say the trustees did “nothing to correct, or even address, the project’s very serious shortcomings.”
Lankford said one of her organization’s biggest concerns is the effect the project could have on the habit of sea turtles, birds and beach mice.

“If you stand on the pier and look to the right or left, that’s the only mile stretch of uninhabited beach. It’s a conservation area,” she said. “We have concerns about the noise pollution from a 300-person facility. That’s certainly going to deter animals.”

Though the lighting in the park will be “sea turtle friendly” by design, Lankford said the lights from inside the convention center wouldn’t be and could have an affect on the sea turtle population.

The trustees acknowledged some “minor and moderate adverse impacts” in the executive summary of the project, but not the wildlife issues raised by the Ocean Conservancy.

The summary from the trustees also suggests the long-term benefits of dune restoration and increased recreational opportunities would outweigh any adverse impacts.

Among several improvements to the 6,150-acre property, the Gulf State Park project created controversy by allocating $58 million toward the revitalization of a hotel and conference center that was destroyed by Hurricane Ivan in 2004.

Other groups, like the Gulf Restoration Network, have also spoken out against using more than half of Alabama’s NRDA funding for a convention center.

Gov. Robert Bentley has already contracted with the University of Alabama to manage the project. The university has been collecting requests for proposals, which are due by Oct. 17.

A research and education center for k-12 students is also included in the project, as is an interpretive center, which would create indoor and outdoor exhibits “dedicated to promoting the value of Alabama’s natural resources,” according to the project’s description.

Environmentally, the project aims to restore 50 acres of dunes through the creation of sand movement corridors, which will assist in the natural build up of dunes in the future.

The remaining $8 million in Phase III not earmarked for Gulf State Park is being split between a $5 million living shoreline project and a $3.2 million oyster clutch restoration in Mobile Bay.

The oyster cultch project will restore oyster reefs in Mobile Bay and the Mississippi Sound by placing “30,000 to 40,000 cubic yards of suitable oyster shell cultch over approximately 319 acres of subtidal habitat.”

The third project will create 1.6 miles of breakwaters covered with oyster shell along a 615-acre state-owned swift tract site in Bon Secour Bay — part of the Weeks Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve.

Though Alabama set aside the majority this most lucrative phase for recreational recovery, the first two phases of NRDA funding did address some of the state’s environmental recovery.

In 2012, Phase I of the Early Restoration Plan brought $62 million, which the state of Alabama saw $13.8 million in the form of two projects – $11 million of marsh creation in Portersville Bay and a dune restoration project in Baldwin County.

The same year, Phase II split $9 million between two projects designed to improve avian breeding habitats and sea turtle nesting sites damaged by the oil spill.