Gulf leaders may lose critical opportunity to save remaining coastal wetlands

BP 435x292 Gulf leaders may lose critical opportunity to save remaining coastal wetlandsLast month, when Alabama Governor Robert Bentley announced that virtually all the funds the state would receive from BP for oil-spill restoration would be used to build an $85-million luxury hotel and conference center on the beach, environmentalists knew it was going to be a long battle to reverse the harm done to the Gulf’s beaches and wetlands and the sensitive ecosystems they sustain.

After all, millions of barrels of highly toxic dispersant-treated oil are still blanketing the seafloor just off the coast, smothering all life for hundreds of square miles. And there the oil will remain for the next hundred years, making encore appearances every time a tropical storm or hurricane blows through the region.

How a luxury hotel and conference center will correct such a giant, pervasive problem remains to be seen, but it likely depends on a theory that revenues generated from the project will trickle down to scientific research and coastal rehabilitation projects.

Perhaps Alabama is banking on the state receiving its share of Restore funds in the future. The Restore Act, signed by President Obama last year, allocates 80 percent of civil fines BP pays for its 2010 Deepwater Horizon spill to the five Gulf States and a new entity called the Gulf Coast Ecosystem Restoration Council.

Those fines could potentially inject precious billions of dollars into the states and fund an all-out effort to clean the Gulf. However, according Ben Raines, the executive director of the Weeks Bay Foundation, a group dedicated to protecting coastal land, some of the ideas about spending that money don’t have much to do with coastal restoration and recovery. For instance, in Mobile, there are plans to build a sea wall around the city jail using Restore funds.

Mississippi is already using environmental recovery funds to build a baseball stadium instead of putting it toward desperately needed marsh preservation. Coastal wetlands in that state and in Louisiana are disappearing at a staggering rate, thanks to artificial alterations of the land that have traditionally placed commerce above environmental soundness. Louisiana alone has lost 1,900 square miles of land in the last 80 years.

Other plans for Restore money call for deepening the very shipping channels that contribute to wetland erosion and loss.

As a result of all this loss and destruction, a few remaining stretches of marshland are doing all the work. They are the marshes that in Mr. Raines’ words, “[power] the entire coastal ecosystem by nurturing the young of nearly everything that swims in the Gulf. In fact, these marshes are the single biggest reason the Gulf has rebounded as well as it has from the spill.”

Failing to prioritize wetlands restoration may rob the future of a healthy, vibrant Gulf ecosystem, and weaken the Gulf’s chances of recovering from another oil spill.

“The Restore Act windfall represents a critical chance to grab up and safeguard some of the remaining marshes and coastal wetlands,” Mr. Raines explained.


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