BP has reneged on promises made in November to negotiate early payments to Louisiana to help rebuild oyster beds, repair damaged wetlands, and build a fish hatchery to allow the state to respond immediately to the collapse of commercial fisheries in the wake of the BP Gulf oil spill, state officials said Monday.
Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority Chairman Garret Graves and Department of Wildlife & Fisheries Director Robert Barham said the state will instead scramble to find millions of dollars to begin the work itself, then bill BP for the costs.
“BP has clearly changed their approach,” Barham said. “All we’ve asked is for them to do what they said they would do in their commercials, be here for the long haul and make it right.”
Instead, he said, the company has clearly moved from a public-relations strategy to one focusing on litigation over whether damage to the state’s oyster beds was BP’s fault. The state contends that its decision to open many freshwater diversions along the Mississippi River to full blast at the height of the oil spill kept oil from entering the oyster beds, though the fresh water killed the oysters, requiring the beds to be restocked with cultch, oyster shell deposited beneath the water on which oyster larvae [attach and] grow.
“Their response today was that we see no evidence of oil injuring the oysters,” Barham said. U.S. Senator David Vitter, R-La., had asked BP to pay $15 million for new oyster cultch, and even that would not have been enough money to restock all the beds that were damaged in St. Bernard, Plaquemines, Jefferson, and Lafourche Parishes, he said.
Wildlife & Fisheries is financed by license fees, with little help from the state budget. And those fees were another casualty of the spill that BP has not acted on, Barham said.
“We had made a claim for lost recreational license sales and BP had, quote, agreed to pay $2.5 million for our loss of license revenue back in December and we still haven’t received a dime,” he said. The reason is that the state has refused to sign an agreement with BP that would release the company from liability “for everyone they’ve ever done business with, an impossible release for us to sign.”
Still, his department will come up with about $2 million for the cultch project.
Graves will be looking for money in other state coastal restoration programs to pay for planting wetland grasses and other repairs to stabilize banks of canals and streams damaged by oil from the spill.
“We’re looking for any emergency funds the state has,” Graves said. “We’re currently flipping couches over to figure out what change is there.
To be clear, we don’t have any expectation to find tens of millions of dollars that aren’t already tied down to other important uses in the state budget, but we do think we can find several millions of dollars to pay for immediate actions to stop critical losses of wetlands and start the rebuilding of oysters.”
At the November news conference, Governor Bobby Jindal and BP America Chairman and President Lamar McKay announced that BP would advance the state $218 million for seafood marketing, tourism promotion, and barrier island restoration.
Jindal also announced that the state was working with BP on a separate agreement to help finance construction of a fish hatchery and two fish grow-out facilities and to help underwrite the cost of the oyster seeding program.
A spokesman for BP’s new Gulf Coast Restoration Organization, now leading the oil spill response effort in Louisiana, could not be reached for comment Monday night.
The hatchery and grow-out facilities are estimate to cost $48 million and would be built over several years, just in case of an unforeseen collapse of an important commercial fishery in Louisiana waters, Barham said.
After the Exxon Valdez tanker grounding and spill in Prince William Sound, commercial fishing continued for about four years when herring disappeared, decimating an entire fishing industry in the area, Barham said. Today, he said, Alaska fisheries scientists link remnant oil from the spill to a steady decline in the area’s salmon fishery, as well.
“They had talked favorably about it, but it’s just another indication that they’re now going to take the position of saying no to everything and go to court,” Barham said.
Barham said the state also is facing another major disagreement with BP over the acceptability of the cleanup of the Elmer’s Island beach in southernmost Lafourche Parish.
“BP a couple of weeks ago said they’re now looking to natural processes to finish the degradation of oil,” he said. “But at Elmer’s Island refuge, there are new tar balls coming ashore. Apparently, a mat of oil is in the subtidal zone just offshore and now it’s coagulating again and creating a fresh supply of oil.”
He said that LSU toxicologist Ralph Portier conducted tests on subsurface sand samples from the beach area and found troubling concentrations of carcinogenic polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons [PAHs], including benzene, xylene, and toluene.
“Cleaning the surface did not get rid of them,” Barham said of the oil spill response cleanup efforts on the beach. “Before we can open that refuge and let little kids out there with buckets and shovels to build sand castles, we don’t want them turning up PAHs. We want to know what their plan is to deal with it.”