The 2010 Deepwater Horizon disaster in the Gulf of Mexico was the worst oil spill in U.S. history. Five years later the legal claims against BP have made history, too, with the nation’s largest-ever environmental settlement.
The news is a major milestone for Mississippi. For the past five years, Gulf Coast states and the Department of Justice have sought compensation for the spill’s extensive environmental and economic damage. Earlier this month, they reached an agreement with BP over the remaining penalties that the oil company owes. The agreement includes the final figure for BP’s Clean Water Act fines – a critical piece of the RESTORE Act.
Reaping the Benefits of RESTORE
Giving states the authority and flexibility to prioritize their most urgent recovery projects after the oil spill is something I championed as a coauthor of the RESTORE Act. The law, passed by Congress in 2012, directs 80 percent of Clean Water Act fines to affected Gulf Coast states. Typically, the U.S. Treasury would reserve these fines for the cleanup of future oil spills. RESTORE ensures that the funds will go where they are needed most.
RESTORE also recognizes that recovery efforts should be comprehensive, allowing Gulf states to pursue both economic and environmental initiatives. It established the Gulf Coast Ecosystem Restoration Council to facilitate partnerships between states and the federal government, promoting the strategic collaboration we need to make the Coast whole again.
The recent court agreement puts Clean Water Act fines at $5.5 billion, giving states more certainty about available resources and the viability of their long-term restoration plans. Mississippi is set to receive $582 million, in addition to the $106 million in early RESTORE payments. These funds can be directed to environmental, economic, and research projects. RESTORE funds will also be used for Research Centers of Excellence in each Gulf state.
Closing a Difficult Chapter
Overall, Mississippi is expected to receive an additional $1.5 billion over the next 17 years, putting its total compensation at nearly $2.2 billion. Among these payments is $750 million in economic damages, which the state legislature will determine how to allocate.
As Mississippians well know, the consequences of the spill were felt far and wide, not only jeopardizing the health of marine ecosystems but also residents’ livelihoods. Misperceptions of tainted seafood and polluted beaches severely damaged tourism and small businesses. Although the full extent of the harm may not be known for years, the settlement helps close a difficult chapter and promises to strengthen our recovery efforts in substantial ways.
Restoring a U.S. Treasure
It is important to build on the progress we have made. Mississippi’s early restoration projects have focused on replenishing oyster harvests and reef habitats as well as advancing infrastructure improvements for recreational use. Funding through the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation has addressed critical conservation needs and invasive species management. Meanwhile, tourism, the seafood industry, and energy exploration are showing signs of rebound, helping restore a way of life for our coastal communities.
Continued cooperation, transparency, and accountability will be necessary as Mississippi puts its portion of the BP settlement money to good use. We have an opportunity to make the Coast better than ever. Vibrant fisheries, energy resources, and recreational fun make the Gulf one of America’s greatest treasures. Its success is a win for the entire nation.