States seek to wring opportunity from BP disaster.

By Benjamin Leger, The Lens contributing writer

The $1 billion fund set up by BP is supposed to pay for restoration of natural resources damaged by last year’s Deepwater Horizon blowout and oil spill, the worst environmental disaster in the nation’s history. But a coalition has come forward with a report concerned that without greater transparency and public input, the money will be misused.

Alabama’s wish list includes a beachside parking lot and a new police station. Mississippi wants a tourist-friendly aquarium and a storage facility for boats. Texas officials would use old oil platforms to build artificial reefs with its share of the $1 billion restitution fund BP has set up.

Announced in April on the anniversary of the spill, the BP money will be divided between two federal agencies, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the Interior Department, and the five states that border the Gulf of Mexico: Texas, Mississippi, Alabama and Florida and Louisiana.

A committee of representatives of the coastal states and the federal agencies will select projects from the state wish lists, but BP must approve all projects and costs. Of the five Gulf Coast states included in the settlement, Louisiana is the only one so far to publicly release its list of priorities.

“The magnitude of the BP oil disaster demands robust public participation on all levels,” said Jill Mastrototaro, Sierra Club Gulf Coast regional campaign director, speaking for the Gulf Future Coalition.

The group, which includes about three dozen community and environmental groups, has raised questions about the environmental value of some projects proposed. The plan for oil platform reefs proposed in Texas, for instance, “raises public health concerns,” says the report released by the coalition on Tuesday.

The police station earmarked for funds in Alabama does not “meet any criteria” for funding. A parking structure put on the state’s restoration priority list similarly misses the fund’s basic criteria of addressing specific injuries of the oil spill.

Another project on Mississippi’s list would improve “the appearance of storm water outfalls near Highway 90” while directing “storm water directly into the Mississippi Sound without filtering pollutants,” the report states.

The aquarium proposal, near Biloxi, Ms., consistently showed up in state pamphlets and documents despite the state’s acknowledgement that it is of dubious environmental value, Cynthia Sarthou, executive director of Gulf Restoration Network, said. The aquarium would house dolphins that washed up on oily beaches after the spill, she said, but that amounts to nothing more than “a very expensive ‘Sea World’ at the public’s expense.”

The report goes on to challenge the broad criteria for project selection and the lack of avenues for public input.

Louisiana received a rare favorable mark from environmentalists. The state earned plaudits for publicly vetting its 13 priority projects. Most of the projects have undergone environmental review as well, the report said. Unlike other states, Louisiana’s priorities appear to meet restoration criteria.

The Louisiana projects include restoration of the Caminada Headland, a section of the Barataria Basin Barrier Shoreline that is eroding into the Gulf. Also prioritized were several projects that would build barrier islands and restore oil-damaged oyster reefs.

The report identifies several key criteria that the coalition says should be considered before a project makes the committee’s short list. Though that short list will be submitted to the public for comment, environmentalists worry that without a more robust and open process prior to the comment period, public participation will be largely illusory.

“It is that small window of opportunity that we feel the public should be involved in,” said Sarthou.

If the proposals are whittled down, based solely on judgments of the trustee council, “they are just taking into account the personal preference of the trustees doing the review,” she said. “It’s essentially just an arbitrary process, which is what the members of our coalition are very upset about.”

The Gulf Future report contends that the current process allows the public  “no way of knowing” how projects are prioritized, or why. That should be changed immediately, the environmentalists say. Their report provides a suggested blueprint for evaluation that includes public input and clearly defined criteria.

Federal officials rebuffed the recommendation. The committee of state and federal agency trustees could do the job just fine without more public participation, said Tim Zink, a spokesman for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

“These people know what they are doing,” Zink said. “They are dedicated to representing the public and holding BP accountable to the fullest extent of the law for the damages they have caused.”

Zink said the trustee council in coming months expects to disclose projects recommended for a first round of funding, but the list won’t be “written in cement.”

“If we hear that any one of those projects is overwhelmingly unacceptable to the public, the trustees will pull back on those projects,” he said. “One of the fears that’s out there is that the trustees will come out with a plan that spends the money really fast. That’s not what’s going to happen – there will likely be several rounds, several waves of projects, and multiple times for the public to weigh in.”

Zink said those opportunities to weigh in would happen in the “coming months.”

“When they see the great lengths we are going to solicit public comments, a lot of their concerns will be answered,” he said.