/Several years into BP settlement spending, the bulk of Mississippi’s restoration work remains undone

Several years into BP settlement spending, the bulk of Mississippi’s restoration work remains undone

It looked like taffy floating in the water. “It looked like taffy floating through the water.” Skrmetta was one of many Mississippi Gulf Coast residents who witnessed firsthand the destruction that the Deepwater Horizon oil disaster caused to the state’s natural resources. Ten years later, after one of the worst ecological disasters in American history, the captain of the tour boat, along with other coastal residents, are examining Mississippi’s recovery efforts that have brought billions to the state’s coffers. However, it has been difficult to complete the restoration due to legal hurdles and other red tape. April was the 10-year anniversary for the explosion that claimed 11 lives, sent 134,000,000 gallons crude oil gushing into the Mississippi Sound over two months, and caused damages of $60 billion. The largest ever environmental damages settlement was reached by the Department of Justice in 2016. BP, a United Kingdom-based company, had to pay more that $20 billion. This money, along with more than $2 billion in criminal penalties and smaller settlements against Transocean (two companies that owned the vessel) and Anadarko (part of the well), will be used over the next ten years through several federal funding programs. Mississippi will receive $1.3 billion to fund environmental restoration projects in 2031, in addition to the $750 million for economic damage. Mississippi Today’s analysis of BP spending indicates that most of the restoration work is still unfinished. According to the most recent data, Mississippi had spent $134million of a total $576 million. This leaves more than $700 million for future projects. The analysis shows that nearly 80% of funds were spent on non-environmental projects out of the approximately dozen restoration projects completed so far. This was done by the Mississippi Department of Environmental Quality. These funds include $14 million for Gulfport Aquarium, $10 Million for INFINITY Science Centre in Pearlington and $4 Million for Popp’s Ferry Causeway Park, Biloxi. As of December 2013, 60% of all current project funding had been allocated to environmental projects, which shows that the state is still working on ecological restoration. The MDEQ has ranked water quality as a top priority but spending on it has been less than other areas. Although other projects are being undertaken to address the problem, the main focus of the state on water quality is to repair the Coast’s aging sewer network. This project had not received more than one million dollars in spending by December last year. Experts and officials who have been following the process claim that even though the oil spillage occurred ten years ago, most of the restoration work could not start until 2016’s settlement. However, some environmentalists are not convinced that the state prioritizes its top restoration goals. Others are worried that Mississippi isn’t taking a coordinated approach to restoration. Eric J. Shelton Following the 2010 explosion, Haley Barbour (the Republican governor of Mississippi at the time) demanded that BP cover all costs associated with the cleanup. “Nothing will be satisfactory until the well has been shut off. Once the well has been capped, clean up any oil and then BP will pay the bills. Barbour stated that “nothing is satisfactory” until all of this was done. The former President Obama visited the Gulf in June and pledged that all federal resources would be used to address the spillage’s effects. Obama stated that there is a concern that the disaster will not only threaten our fisherman and shrimpermen but also affect precious marshes, wetlands, and estuaries. Obama stated that there is a concern that the disaster could have a lasting impact on the way of life of generations to come. The Mississippi Department of Environmental Quality identified three goals for its $1.3 billion budget. These were largely based on discussions with local Coast stakeholders. They are: improving water quality, restoring natural marine resources and conserving coastal habitat. From 2014 to January this year, Gary Rikard was the MDEQ director. The Mississippi Sound’s water quality problems include fecal bacteria in the vicinity of beaches, freshwater influx from the Bonnet Carre Spillway and blue-green algae from nutrient runoff. These problems limit the access of residents to water, make it unsafe for seafood and threaten the health of marine life. Eric J. Shelton BP funds have been spent on several projects to improve water quality. These include the acquisition of land from private owners to reduce runoff and rebuilding oyster populations, which act as a water filter. Also, natural living shorelines with marshes were created that, like oysters remove excess nutrients and lower the risk of harmful algal blooms. Some issues are beyond the state’s reach. Federal officials stated earlier this year, following two record-breaking spillways of the Bonnet Carre Spillway last summer, which decimated marine life and left fishermen reeling from the effects, that any changes to the spillway’s operation would need congressional action. The Gulf’s salinity changes dramatically as a result of spillway openings. In 2019, nearly all the state’s oysters were killed and more than half of its shrimps and blue crabs were lost. MDEQ has allocated $68 million to the Coast’s wastewater treatment and sewage systems upgrades, which is more than the state can control using BP funds. Old sewer pipes can deteriorate and bacteria can leak through cracks. Stormwater can flush bacteria into the Mississippi Sound during heavy rains. This is due to climate change. MDEQ has issued 237 water advisory notices along the Coast since 2017 due to sewage or bacteria issues. Skrmetta, whose family owns Ship Island Excursions for over 94 years, said, “It’s distressing. It’s frustrating. And it’s embarrassing.” “It’s beginning to affect my way of living and my livelihood economically when people decide to leave the Mississippi Gulf Coast for the east,” Eric J. Shelton. Now that they have identified sewage areas and treatment facilities to repair or upgrade, MDEQ will begin to implement projects using RESTORE Act funds. The state has spent less than $1million of $68 million obligated funds — money that the agency budgets before it receives — toward the program as of December 2013. Teresse Collins, vice-president of the non-profit Gulf Island Conservancy, stated that if we haven’t addressed storm water runoff and wastewater treatment, then we really haven’t spent that money to have a positive effect on.” It’s not clear why so much money has been spent on this project by those who are directly involved in the response to the spillage. However, non-environmental projects such as the Mississippi Aquarium in Gulfport which was funded with $14 million from BP, have already been completed. Daniel Le, of Boat People SOS (a non-profit that assists local Vietnamese-American communities and works closely with fishermen who have been affected by the spillage), stated that “we have yet to see any projects that really make an impact in terms improving the water quality or restoring production of the species.” “There are a lot of land-based projects that do not relate to the restoration of water,” Le stated. He and local fishermen participated in the initial meetings of the state to involve Coast stakeholders on the spending process. However, they did not see the progress they desired. He said that he believes a majority of the fishing community have given up. The agency or other body that oversees the fund must approve each project. These agencies include the RESTORE council, the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation and NOAA. Some funding streams allow a portion of the funds to be used for economic development and recreational projects. Collins said, “I think you see from the projects how (states and local governments) feel regarding the issues.” Collins said that while they might have an economic impact and look nice, they don’t really address the continuing impacts of the oil spillage or the ongoing effects. Chris Wells, the Governor of Mississippi, asked if they can. In an interview with Mississippi Today in January, Tate Reeves, who was appointed to lead MDEQ, discussed those concerns. He explained that the public doesn’t see much of the water-quality work that has been done so far such as the source tracking bacteria hotspots. He said that it takes between 18 and 24 months to get money from a proposal to the ground. Wells stated that “Unfortunately, a lot of the work we have done is not visible to the public.” The aquarium is easily visible. The progress of the aquarium’s construction can be seen from the outside. However, so much of our work has been doing that scientific groundwork, engineering and design work, and doing stuff that’s literally below the water.” Wells believes that this year’s Restoration Summit will show the results of work done to study water quality and other ecological issues. He said, “So for somebody who’s been to the summit for four to five years, I think it’s legit for them to say, “Well, you’ve been discussing it, but have you done anything?” Eric J. Shelton “And that’s exactly the thing we’re going to do at the summit,” he said. Another criticism of the state’s restoration efforts is the apparent inability to create a comprehensive plan to mobilize funds from the oil disaster with what’s known as the Tidelands Fund, money from leases on submerged Coast land, and GoMESA, which sends revenue to the Gulf states through offshore oil and gas production. Conservationists often point out Louisiana as an example of a state that has multiple funding sources for its Coastal Master Plan to reduce land loss. Johnny Marquez from the Mississippi Wildlife Federation’s Coastal Policy and Programs director said, “I believe it’s something Mississippi should continue to strive for.” Although fifteen years of funding may seem like a long time to us, we will continue to worry about these issues for many more years. It is worthwhile to have a plan that goes beyond restoration dollars. This was the sentiment of Biloxi State Senator Scott DeLano in July, during a political dispute over GoMESA funds. DeLano stated that while all these programs and projects should be used for restoration, there is no central plan to protect or mitigate natural resources. After all the money spent, we still have all these beach closures (from pollutants). Eric J. Shelton DeLano, Gov. Tate Reeves has been working with Coast delegation members towards this goal. Reeves’ office didn’t respond to questions. Ashley Edwards, president, CEO, and chairman of the Gulf Coast Business Council advisory board on economic damages money from oil spillage, agreed with DeLano and stressed the number of disasters that the Coast has had. Edwards stated that “no region in America has experienced more economic disruption over 15 years than the coast of Mississippi.” The Coast has been subject to several major hurricanes over the past 15 years, including Katrina and Gustav as well as Ike and Zeta. There have also been more frequent spillway openings with oil spillages in between. According to him, the Coast was historically an economic driver for Mississippi but it hasn’t been able to recover as well as the rest since the Great Recession of 2008. He suggested that a more coherent plan for all the recovery streams, including the BP Settlement, could be a key first step in helping the region rebound. Edwards said, “It is quite obvious quickly that we have more money here in economic growth than many regions we compete with in the United States.” “So it stands to reason that we would have a combined, sophisticated strategy to get more bang for the buck of all those funding forces, and position Coastal Mississippi as more economically competitive.” Although there are still questions over the progress of water quality initiatives in Mississippi, many conservationists applaud the use of BP funds by Mississippi to address areas such habitat restoration and conservation. Round Island, Mississippi Sound’s most famous example, was reduced from 200 acres to 20 acres in the late 1800s. The 220 acres were rebuilt using dredged materials. This Island serves as a natural storm protection and is beginning to see a rise in coastal bird population. One species, the Sandwich Tern was able to increase its island population from zero in 2015 to more than 1,000 in 2017. Mississippi Department of Environmental Quality Jill Mastrototaro, of Audubon Mississippi (which partners with the state in a coastal bird-stewardship program), said that this is what restoration success looks like. It can be difficult to demonstrate success for many of the BP projects because it takes years of monitoring to show results. “Science is for patient people. I don’t necessarily have to be one of them. But it takes time to find trends.” The state also used BP funds for land acquisition and easement projects. These included Grand Bay in Jackson County, Turkey Creek which feeds into Biloxi’s Back Bay, as well as several locations along the Upper Pascagoula River. These projects, which have so far cost $4 million each, help conserve local habitats as well as give the state greater control over the downstream effects on water quality. Environmental groups in Mississippi are following closely the Hancock County Living Shoreline project. MDEQ hopes that the $56 million project will help to combat erosion and improve habitat, especially during record-breaking hurricane seasons. The state has spent $30 million so far to build breakwaters along the coast that allow sediment to accumulate. It just received funding for more than 40 acres to plant marsh. This will provide habitat for small species and reduce storm surges. MDEQ’s Wells will be giving an update on the state’s progress during a virtual Restoration Summit. He stated that the public will continue to see more water quality projects and investments in oyster rehabilitation, marsh construction, and other improvements as they move forward. Although most conservationists agree Mississippi is in a better place than it was before the spillage, some are concerned about how federal changes will affect the ability to prevent similar disasters in future. According to a New York Times analysis of drilling and extraction regulations, President Donald Trump’s government has reversed or is currently in the process to remove 20. This includes loosening safety protocols surrounding blowout preventers. This policy was created in response to the 2010 oil spillage under the Obama administration. Eric J. Shelton Trump’s administration also failed to interpret the Migratory Bird Treaty Act. This law helped redirect oil funds towards conservation efforts. Mississippi has much more to do with BP funds than it realized. The state will not stop working to
The state will receive chunks of $1.3 billion over the next 11 years. It has only spent 10%, and 44% of it is obligated. The state is attempting to understand how to adapt to climate change, such as rising rainfall and higher water temperatures. Researches at the University of Southern Mississippi are focused on oyster genetics that can withstand the Gulf. A hydrological model of Mississippi Sound is being developed by the state. This will allow for better analysis of impacts from external influences such as freshwater from Bonnet Carre Spillway. The conservation community is aware that it will take some time to see the effects of the initial projects. Thomas Mohrman is the Marine Program Manager at The Nature Conservancy in Mississippi. He said that natural systems do not move instantly. “You won’t get instant gratification. “You won’t get instant gratification. Ask me again in ten years. I’ll certainly be able to answer your questions if we made the right decisions.” This story was produced with the McGraw Fellowship for Business Journalism at City University of New York’s Craig Newmark Graduate School of Journalism.