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Locking up the Gulf oil spill billions

Last year’s BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico was the worst environmental disaster in American history. Before it’s all over, it’s expected to generate upwards of $21 billion in Clean Water Act fines, and the move is on to capture the money lest it disappear into some unrelated federal black hole!

Shortly after the spill, President Obama created the Gulf Restoration Task Force to develop a strategy not only to restore the ecosystem from the spill damage but to improve the long-term health of the Gulf. The task force, made up of senior officials from 11 federal agencies and representatives from the five Gulf coast states (Florida, Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama), issued its draft report last week for public comment.

The report contains sweeping recommendations to bolster both the science and political support for a long-term, expensive restoration. Four major goals are outlined including: (1) restoring and conserving habitat; (2) restoring water quality; (3) replenishing living coastal and marine resources; and (4) enhancing community resilience. It further outlines 19 actions needed to accomplish the objectives, including the rightful dedication of all the fine dollars to the restoration, in addition to all current funding for such projects.

To that end, the “RESTORE Gulf Coast States Act of 2011” has been introduced by Rep. Steve Scalise, R-La., and supported by 20 other bipartisan co-sponsors. Concurrently, nine senators from the Gulf states introduced a companion bill in the Senate. Their bill has already passed through the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee.

There are many notable things about the report, not the least of which is that it calls for another, more specific report (it’s the government way, folks!). As one member commented: “We took a year to write a report that recommends another report.” Still, there’s no question the initial report boldly attempts to make Gulf coastal restoration rank up with other national priorities. For example, it calls for the Army Corps of Engineers to increase the amount of sediment dredged from the Mississippi River used to rebuild wetlands, the speeding up of processes for approving restoration projects and elevating to high priority the restoration goals.

Among others, the recommended restoration of “depleted fisheries and wildlife populations” should be of particular interest to the boating and fishing industries. The draft report recommends creating data collection programs independent of the existing system of relying on commercial and recreational fishery landings. “The lack of data is frequently cited as a major challenge in achieving sustainability and maximizing economic benefits to recreational and commercial fisheries,” the report contends. The report also recommends looking at ways to reintroduce species in areas with depleted populations, including the use of aquaculture to restock native species.

While one might question still another proposed data collection program for fisheries, the current system is so flawed a new one seems a worthy goal. Overall, task force draft report does call for future decisions to be made based solely on good science and not on political concern. When it comes to our fisheries, as well as the long-term health of the Gulf, that’s a recommendation we can all get behind!

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