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DOJ Pursues Clean Water Fines for BP, Now Congress Must Ensure Funds for Gulf Restoration

To miss the opportunity to take the pulse of the Gulf through long-term research and monitoring would be to gamble with the Gulf's future and jeopardize the ecological engine that drives our economy.
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This week the Department of Justice announced that they will pursue civil penalties under the Clean Water Act against BP and the seven other parties responsible for the oil disaster. Yet while DOJ moves forward, Congress still hasn't done its part by passing legislation to ensure environmental restoration is adequately funded for the entire Gulf Coast. It must act now to ensure that Clean Water Act fines charged for the BP Deepwater Horizon oil disaster are applied to projects that will revive our injured ecosystem and economy.

Our elected officials were united in many of their public sentiments at the height of the BP oil disaster. They recognized that the health of the Gulf needed to be restored to renew the prosperity of the region; that the commitment to recovery should be equal to the magnitude of the tragedy; and that those who had made the mess should pay the costs of restoration.

Yet Congress may close the books on this year without having done anything meaningful to help restore the marine waters, coastal wetlands and communities that were affected by the disaster. Congress must act now while there is still a chance to make a real difference and while it is possible to use money from those responsible to fund the recovery.

The Clean Water Act fines that will be collected by the federal government from the parties responsible for the BP Deepwater Horizon oil disaster should be dedicated to addressing the environmental problems that plague the Gulf of Mexico ecosystem. While BP and other responsible parties must compensate families and private businesses for the economic disaster caused by the blowout, the fines for these staggering violations of the Clean Water Act should support a science-based, Gulf-wide restoration effort.

If the Clean Water Act fines are not directed to this effort, it will be the people of the Gulf and, indeed, of the entire nation, who will end up paying the price.

Twenty-one years ago, I was working as Alaska's commissioner of environmental conservation at the time of the Exxon Valdez spill. Much of the nation and the world watched aghast as oil-drenched birds and sea otters were collected from fouled North Pacific waters.

In response, people demanded reforms to prevent these catastrophes, and I worked with the Alaska Legislature and Congress to make those changes.

The Oil Pollution Act of 1990 was passed as a result. Among other important provisions, it required that the responsible party pay a penalty based on the amount of oil discharged.

According to Clean Water Act penalty rules, BP and other responsible parties are to be fined between $1,100 and $4,300 for each of the 4.9 million barrels spilled, depending upon whether BP is found to have been grossly negligent. Total fines are estimated to be between $5 billion and $21 billion.

Currently, however, the law makes no provision for those fines to be dedicated for restoration of the ecosystem that has been impacted. As Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus recommended in his recent report outlining a Gulf recovery strategy, Congress should "pass legislation to dedicate a significant amount of any Clean Water Act penalties to the Gulf Coast's recovery."

This action is critical to the recovery of the natural resources-based economy and way of life throughout the Gulf Coast.

Long-term economic stability comes from a healthy Gulf that can attract tourists and sustain fisheries. Directing fines toward restoration measures specifically aimed at repairing damage done by the BP oil disaster as well as legacy damage before the oil disaster is an investment in the Gulf's future.

An endowment of $1 billion, for example, could generate $50 million per year to support an integrated, long-term research and monitoring program. That would allow us to evaluate the performance of other Gulf ecosystem restoration projects and gather the scientific data needed to manage and conserve the Gulf's natural resources.

To miss the opportunity to take the pulse of the Gulf through long-term research and monitoring would be to gamble with the Gulf's future and jeopardize the ecological engine that drives our economy.

We must learn from this disaster and adopt policies to protect the health of our ocean and coastal economy now and for future generations. If Congress meets the challenge and dedicates Clean Water Act fines to ensure the Gulf's long-term health, more people in the region will have jobs, and the environment will be more productive and resilient for all.