NOAA: Some oil spill recovery money limited to environmental projects


WASHINGTON – A major source of oil spill recovery money largely restricts spending to environmental projects, even though the program gets some of its money because of economic damage, officials with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration said last week.

Those rules are mandated in the law governing the Natural Resource Damage Assessment, or NRDA, federal officials said.

NRDA is a review and restoration process mandated by federal law following environmental disasters. In the wake of the Gulf oil spill, assessments are being conducted, both onshore and offshore, in Alabama, Mississippi, Florida, Louisiana and Texas. Once the damage is quantified, BP PLC, majority owner of the leaking well, and any other responsible party must pay to fix the damage.

Gov. Bob Riley has expressed concern that Alabama could get shortchanged in the joint multi-state and federal NRDA process if recovery projects are limited to environmental damage. He has suggested that the state could instead conduct its own assessment, then negotiate directly with the responsible parties.

Asked about the likelihood that Alabama will withdraw from the NRDA process to negotiate independently, Riley spokesman Jeff Emerson said: “I’m sure if Gov. Riley feels the process is detrimental to Alabama, that would happen.”

Casi Callaway, leader of the environmental group Mobile Baykeeper, said she thinks NRDA money should, and by law must, be spent on environmental projects, which will provide the biggest and “longest-lasting bang for our buck.” Efforts to boost the local economy will create only short-term gains, she said.

“We will lose the best opportunity we’ve ever had in our history to make Alabama’s coast great if we ignore environmental restoration for a purely economic project,” Callaway said.

Riley has also said he’s concerned that the federal government would dictate final spending decisions to the states, but NOAA officials brushed aside that notion.

“No trustee is designated lead for restoration decisions under the law,” NOAA spokesman Ben Sherman said in an e-mail. “Trustees work together to make those decisions.”

Trustees include federal government agencies and representatives of each Gulf state.

Riley said earlier this month that federal officials told him states would have to submit projects to Washington for approval. The NRDA process is collaborative, so a state won’t make its decisions independently, but it also won’t be dictated to by the federal government, according to NOAA.

The governor had similar concerns about federal control over oil spill money stemming from Clean Water Act fines. However, the law currently sends such money to a trust fund for future oil spills, not to the affected states.

Sending the money to states will require legislation in Congress, and that bill will ultimately determine who controls the funds, federal officials said.

Clean Water Act fines against BP PLC and other parties responsible for the summer’s massive oil spill could range from $5.4 billion to $21.1 billion.

Riley has said NRDA could bring billions more, but federal officials said it is too early to estimate dollar amounts.

The Oil Pollution Act of 1990 calls for NRDA to study the “injury to, destruction of, loss of, or loss of use of, natural resources” as a result of incidents such as oil spills. Economic damage is tallied under the “loss of use” provision.

NOAA officials noted that the section of the law authorizing recovery projects makes no mention of economic restoration, saying only that officials “shall develop and implement a plan for the restoration, rehabilitation, replacement, or acquisition of the equivalent, of the natural resources.”

Tony Penn, deputy chief of NOAA’s assessment and restoration division, said the closest thing to economic recovery that NRDA money is used for is increasing public access to natural resources: fishing piers, boat ramps and the like.

Penn said the program would likely not cover the construction of a convention center, an idea that Riley has championed.

“I think it’s probably going too far,” Penn said.

Emerson said the difference between a convention center and a fishing pier or parking lot near a natural resource “is just a difference in scope and not purpose,” since both types of projects will draw more people to the Gulf Coast’s natural resources.

“You could clean the beaches every day for a year, but if you don’t get people back to the beach, then you still have a tremendous loss there,” Emerson said.

The governor’s office is also worried about losing out to other states. Riley said earlier this month that if NRDA money can only be spent on environmental restoration, “that really (puts) Alabama, Mississippi and Florida at a significant disadvantage.”

Callaway said such a view understates the environmental damage done to Alabama.

“Even locally, people are saying Alabama did not get hit by any kind of environmental disaster; it was all Louisiana,” she said. “That’s not true.”

Alabama should get a sizable chunk of restoration money, even if it all goes to environmental causes, she said. But if Alabama does not get enough, or if the federal government tries to dictate what the money must be spent on, Callaway agrees that Alabama should abandon the joint NRDA process and go it alone.

“We do know what’s best for our community,” Callaway said.

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Stuart H. Smith is an attorney based in New Orleans fighting major oil companies and other polluters.
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