Gulf Coast needs urgent help to stem demise, group says

McClatchy NewspapersSeptember 12, 2012 

— A five-state coalition, warning that decades of damage inflicted by man and nature could take a $350 billion toll, called Wednesday on the White House and Congress to make an urgent commitment of massive, long-term aid to protect the battered Gulf Coast, its fragile ecosystem and its oil, seafood, shipping and tourism industries.

"The Gulf Coast is coming to the end of its borrowed time, I’m afraid," R. King Milling, the chairman of America’s Wetland Foundation, said in unveiling a report containing 30 recommendations for coastal restoration from Florida to Texas, steps estimated to cost tens of billions of dollars at a time of fiscal frugality in Washington.

“Unless we act decisively and boldly, coastal degradation will continue to accelerate and will outpace our efforts to combat it,” Milling told a news conference. “And the region’s irreplaceable resources – oil and gas, navigation, fishing and that remarkable ecosystem – will be gone in a matter of decades. This is not conjecture. This is fact.”

The report summarizes the results of forums held over 14 months in 11 communities from Florida to Texas – including Biloxi, Miss. – in which more than 1,100 local leaders were asked to set aside partisan or parochial differences and join in a common cause.

It estimates that the Gulf Coast could face $350 billion in cumulative economic losses over the next 20 years from storm surges, rising seas due to global warming and sinking land masses due to mistaken management of the Mississippi River.

The recommendations include calls for urgent federal action to fast-track coastal restoration projects and eliminate conflicting federal policies, and for adopting long-term strategies to defend shorelines against storm surges, such as the wall of water that Hurricane Katrina unleashed on Mississippi and Louisiana in 2005.

They call for a stable, sustained budget for the Army Corps of Engineers to dredge the Mississippi River and distribute the sediment for coastal restoration, rather than allowing it to be carried into the Gulf of Mexico, where fertilizer nutrients have created a dead zone that eliminates oxygen for marine life.

Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La., who joined her Republican colleague David Vitter and officials from Mississippi, Alabama and Texas at the event, vowed to “fight politically at every level across party lines to save this most special and spectacular place.”

Milling criticized Washington policymakers as taking a shortsighted approach to the complex threats in the gulf, among them hurricanes, oil spills and an overflow of Mississippi River sediment.

In comparison to the $140 billion in post-Katrina recovery costs in Louisiana alone, earlier projections of $14 billion for restorations that might have prevented much of the damage look like a bargain, he said. Now, he wrote in introducing the report, Louisiana needs another $50 billion to repair a jagged shoreline that’s so long it could stretch coast to coast.

Tina Shumate, the director of coastal management for the Mississippi Department of Marine Resources, said the recent reconstruction of a sea wall in Bay St. Louis, Miss., had prevented the flooding of hundreds of homes from a storm surge late last month during Hurricane Isaac.

Sizable pots of money already are flowing to the affected states. In the aftermath of British oil giant BP’s 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil well blowout, which sent hundreds of millions of gallons of oil into the gulf, each of the five states has received $100 million in restoration money from the oil company.

Then last year, after a united push by congressional delegations from those states, Congress passed the RESTORE Act, which dedicates to those states 80 percent of the penalties recovered by the U.S. government in a Clean Water Act suit against BP. Landrieu said those funds could total between $5 billion and $20 billion.

Asked how she’d pry loose money for the gulf amid the nation’s fiscal crisis, Landrieu said she was pushing for the federal government to allot 37.5 percent of the royalties collected on gulf oil leases for restoration efforts, noting that the U.S. government has reaped more than $100 billion already without sharing any of the money.

She said the battle wasn’t just to save the coastline, but also “to save a culture.”

“We need the federal government to step up the pace,” Landrieu said, “and not just when a hurricane is barreling down our throat, not just when a hurricane has flooded our communities, not just when people are swimming for their lives out of their homes.”

“We need our federal government to give this coast the respect that we deserve,” she said.

Email: ggordon@mcclatchydc.com; Twitter: @greggordon2

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