On Thursday, Gulf Restoration Network (GRN) filed suit in Washington, D.C. challenging the decision of the U.S. Department of the Interior and other federal agencies to allow money intended to repair damage to the Gulf of Mexico from the 2010 BP disaster to instead be used to subsidize a beachfront convention center in Alabama.
On October 2, the Department of the Interior, along with the Environmental Protection Agency, the Department of Commerce and the Department of Agriculture, issued a decision approving a final Programmatic Environmental Impact Statement (PEIS) and Phase III Early Restoration Plan (ERP) which allocated $58.5 million dollars of Natural Resource Damage Assessment (NRDA) funds to subsidize a hotel and convention center in Alabama’s Gulf State Park.
“By approving this project, the Trustees have violated the public trust and the law,” said Cyn Sarthou, Executive Director of the Gulf Restoration Network. “The Alabama convention center is a shocking misuse of restoration dollars that could provide much needed resources to the Gulf’s damaged ecosystem. Our coastal communities depend on a clean and healthy Gulf, and these precious restoration dollars cannot be spent on pet projects that don’t do anything to replace the natural resources we lost.”
In the Early NRDA restoration process, BP agreed to put up $1 billion to begin repairing the damage to wetlands, water bottoms and wildlife caused by the BP disaster. The Alabama convention center is one of 44 projects selected for implementation in the third phase of NRDA Early Restoration. The Department of the Interior and other federal agencies are designated as Natural Resource Damage Trustees, and are required to ensure that NRDA funds are actually used to repair or replace natural resources.
“The business of restoring the Gulf in the wake of the BP disaster is an urgent matter, and we need to start moving forward on the other quality restoration projects proposed by the Trustees,” noted Sarthou. “Nobody seriously thinks building a convention center makes up for damage to the Gulf. The Trustees didn’t take a sincere look at how to really use this $58 million to fix real damage, and it’s clear they had already decided to fund this project long before the public had an opportunity to weigh in.”
Since Alabama announced its plan to subsidize a convention center with BP disaster restoration money in 2012, GRN, as well as thousands of citizens across the Gulf, have weighed in to indicate that this is an inappropriate project on which to spend limited restoration funds. Despite this significant outcry, the NRDA Trustees are allowing Alabama to squander $58.5 out its $100 million share of the funds to ‘restore’ the public’s ability to look at the beach through the window of a conference room.
“After the largest oil spill in U.S. history, it’s mindboggling that the agencies tasked with overseeing the restoration of the Gulf Coast would allow money set aside for repairing damage to be spent on a project that has nothing to do with that damage,” said Earthjustice attorney Steve Roady. “This not only violates the law, it makes no sense.”
“A Natural Resource Damage Trustee is supposed to look out for the public, and make sure that the public resources taken by an oil spill are replaced.” said Robert Wiygul, one of the lead attorneys for the Gulf Restoration Network. “There weren’t any convention centers damaged by the BP disaster. If the Trustees had really looked at the alternative ways to spend this $58 million, it would have been clear that this money should go to real restoration like building habitat and protecting land.”
Attorneys who filed the lawsuit are seeking to have the court declare that the federal agencies violated the National Environmental Policy Act and the Oil Pollution Act by approving the project. They are also seeking a court order that would prevent the agencies from authorizing the use of the restoration funds for the convention center project.