Commentary: BP fines should benefit Gulf Coast's environment

Crabs dart among dozens of minnows in the oil-contaminated water at Jackson Marsh near Waveland, Mississippi.
Crabs dart among dozens of minnows in the oil-contaminated water at Jackson Marsh near Waveland, Mississippi. Donna Melton/Biloxi Sun Herald/MCT

Six months ago, environmentalists, government officials and BP workers began scrambling in what would become a long, stressful effort to soak up and contain a historic oil spill.

Today, they're still scrambling -- only now the effort is to direct the amount and flow of money that is expected to come from fines related to the spill.

The penalty, which is yet to be determined, could range from $1,100 per barrel of oil spilled to about $4,300 per barrel, depending on whether the government deems the spill an act of gross negligence.

With some estimates putting the total number of barrels spilled at 4.1 million, BP could be facing a $4 billion to $17 billion fine.

It's possible the company's cleanup and repair efforts so far could mitigate a negligence finding. Still, even at the lower range, the amount could be significant.

Now, there's the question of what to do with all that money? There's no shortage of ideas.

Some state leaders would like to use it for projects such as new roads or bridges, a move that would benefit state budgets.

Unless Congress designates the money for a specific purpose, the funds would go to the general Treasury, benefiting the federal budget.

The House has passed a bill that directs funding to go toward Gulf Coast restoration, but Congress recessed without the Senate voting on the measure.

Where does that leave the group representing the stakeholder most affected by the spill -- the environment? It leaves the environment fighting for a share.

The National Audubon Society, National Wildlife Federation and Environmental Defense Fund are advocating that the money be used for the region's restoration.

Their effort got a push last month when Navy Secretary Ray Mabus, heading a group named by the president to develop a Gulf recovery plan, recommended that a large portion of the fines be used to restore the Gulf Coast.

The effort to ensure the money goes toward gulf restoration is a good one. The problem is that the purpose is so vague that it easily could result in the money being wasted. Gulf Coast ``restoration'' can include a wide range of projects -- perhaps too wide.

Sen. Mary Landrieu of Louisiana, for example, is proposing uses for the money for restoration projects that range from the specific -- levee protection -- to the fuzzy -- ocean education.

U.S. Rep. Kathy Castor of Florida has issued a statement saying she would like to see the money go toward ``investing in research, developing a fisheries marketing plan, promoting tourism, making permanent the 235-mile drilling buffer off of Florida, attacking the dead zone from the Mississippi River, creating an advisory council, studying the effects of dispersants and using restoration as a jobs plan for the Gulf Coast region.''

Still, Landrieu, Castor and others are correct in emphasizing that the money be used to improve the Gulf Coast.

The best outcome, however, would result from using the money for purposes that directly mitigate environmental damage to the Gulf, such as repairing aging sewage and waste infrastructure that periodically spill overflow onto our coastal waters.

Such decisions could end up in the hands of a Gulf Coast Ecosystem Restoration Task Force. Created by the president two weeks ago, the group may end up coordinating the money and choosing some of the projects that will receive funding.

That is, unless Congress keeps the money for itself.

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