By Estelle Robichaux, Environmental Defense Fund
Last week, the Gulf Coast Ecosystem Restoration Council held a public meeting in New Orleans to vote on its Initial Comprehensive Plan: Restoring the Gulf Coast’s Ecosystem and Economy. The RESTORE Act, signed into law in July 2012, established the Council and tasked it with, among other duties, creating a long-term ecosystem restoration plan for the Gulf Coast region in the aftermath of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill.
In his opening remarks, Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal (Council member and host of the meeting) spoke of the many natural and human-caused disasters that have afflicted Louisiana in recent years: Hurricanes Katrina, Rita, Gustav, Ike and Isaac; and, of course, the BP oil disaster.
Jindal highlighted the need to move restoration projects forward and not let the bureaucratic process delay implementation of projects that have already been sufficiently vetted. Jindal stated he had “directed state officials to commit 100 percent of Louisiana’s RESTORE Act funding to ecosystem restoration and community resilience projects associated with our Master Plan.” While the governor acknowledged Transocean for stepping up by paying their Clean Water Act fines, he called on BP to stop spending millions of dollars in public relations, claiming that they have spent more money on television commercials than on actual restoration, while there are still 200 miles of oiled shoreline along the Gulf Coast.
The chair of the Council, newly appointed Secretary of Commerce Penny Pritzker, spoke following Jindal and stated, “the Gulf Region is part of who we are as Americans” and the Council wants “the world to see the Gulf Coast as a wonderful place to visit, work, play, and live.” Although the Comprehensive Plan in its current iteration is still very general, the Secretary took this opportunity to affirm that science will be integral in the decision-making process. She emphasized that the Council was committed to moving forward with the planning and restoration process, despite uncertainties about the ultimate amount or timing of available funds. The desire for momentum was underscored by the Council’s stated goal to begin selecting and funding projects within the next 12 months.
Justin Ehrenwerth, Executive Director of the Council, presented an overview of the Plan and discussed next steps before the Council unanimously voted to pass the Initial Comprehensive Plan and accompanying documents, including the Programmatic Environmental Assessment, Finding of No Significant Impact and Response to Public Comments. Mimi Drew (Chair of the Deepwater Horizon Natural Resource Damage Assessment Trustee Council), Thomas Kelsch (Vice President of National Fish & Wildlife Foundation’s Gulf Environmental Benefit Fund) and Russ Beard (Acting Director of the RESTORE Act Science Program) gave overviews of their respective programs and how they anticipate coordinating with the Council and the Comprehensive Plan as it moves forward.
More than 50 people spoke during the meeting’s public comment portion, which was notably held after the Council had already voted to accept the plan. Many residents of Louisiana and other Gulf Coast states traveled to New Orleans to have their voices heard. Most of them, having watched the natural areas around their lifelong homes degrade in recent years, encouraged, supported and even pleaded with the Council to move forward urgently with Gulf Coast restoration. In the words of the Mississippi River Delta Restoration Campaign’s own David Muth: “Delay is the enemy.”
Some individuals tried to further impress upon the Council the damage that had been done to the Gulf ecosystem, pointing to evidence of the continued presence of oil slicks and suspicious absence of wildlife around Mississippi Canyon block 252, where the Deepwater Horizon oil platform was located. Several staff members and experts from our Mississippi River Delta Restoration Campaign gave statements to the Council, reminding them that Louisiana’s Coastal Master Plan is “not a perfect plan, but it is absolutely the best approach to coastal restoration that has been done.”
Louisiana’s 2012 Coastal Master Plan was developed using a science-based process and examines both present-day and likely-future conditions of the coast. The Master Plan provides a model for how restoration should be addressed Gulf-wide, and the Council should work with Louisiana to prioritize restoration projects set forth in the state’s 2012 Coastal Master Plan.
One of the most passionate speakers, who created the most poignant moment during the almost four-hour-long meeting, was 10-year-old Sean Turner. Sean, the youngest Conservation Pro Staff member of Vanishing Paradise, spoke with conviction about saving coastal Louisiana. “I want to save the coast,” said Sean. “I go fishing. I go hunting. That’s why I care. I want to stay here because Louisiana is Sportsman’s Paradise.” You can watch a video of Sean giving his comments here.
The next crucial step for the Council will be selecting projects that are consistent with the restoration priorities criteria defined in the RESTORE Act and will benefit and restore Gulf Coast ecosystems. The RESTORE Act requires that these projects be designed, selected, prioritized, and implemented using the best available science.