How Spill Settlement Money from BP May Save the Gulf Coast

BP oil spill has long lasting effects on the environment, but perhaps the settlement can revitalize the coast.

BP oil spill has long lasting effects on the environment, but perhaps the settlement can revitalize the coast. Saul Loeb / AFP / Getty Images

By BRYAN WALSH, originally published by Time.

I was sitting shotgun in a speedboat chugging along veiny canals that cut through southern Louisiana’s coastline, during the Gulf oil spill in the summer of 2010. There was plenty to see that was out of the ordinary during that tragic summer, but I noticed something else a bit worrisome. According to the pilot’s GPS device, our boat — skimming at top speed through a wide canal — should have been beached on land. When I pointed this out to the pilot, he just waved me off. The maps in the GPS database dated back a couple of decades, and the coastline had eroded significantly since, destroying the land and opening up new passages through the water. “I have to keep it all in my head,” the pilot said. “It just changes too fast.”

Since the Army Corps of Engineers built huge levees some 80 years ago to protect New Orleans from flooding — not always successfully — the delta at the mouth of the Mississippi River has been sinking. That’s because the levees block the silt that used to go downriver along the Mississippi — and at the same time, hundreds of miles of canals built to support oil and gas infrastructure have further chopped up the remaining land. Without that steady resupply of what is, essentially, the muddy sediment that makes up the coast, the Mississippi Delta is helpless against the rising seas and severe storms that batter the Gulf. It’s no surprise that Louisiana loses 25 to 35 sq. mi. (65 to 90 sq km) of shoreline and wetlands per year, and the state has lost 1,883 sq. mi. (4,876 sq km) of land during the past 80 years — an area three-quarters the size of Delaware.

And here’s the kicker: that slow-motion ecological catastrophe was underway before the Deepwater Horizon accident happened in 2010, spilling millions of barrels of oil into the Gulf of Mexico, much of which found its way to the coastline. Fishermen bore the brunt — at one point, 40% of Gulf waters were closed to fishing — and many have yet to recover, complaining that shrimp and oyster populations have not fully rebounded. That’s one reason that earlier this month BP reached a settlement — initially set at $7.8 billion, though the figure could rise significantly — with hundreds of thousands of Gulf residents who say they’ve been hurt by the spill. Even if Gulf fishing and other livelihoods are never the same as they were prespill, at least those affected will receive some financial restitution.

But the oil spill may yield a surprising benefit for the long-suffering Louisiana coastline. Under the Clean Water Act, BP will also likely need to pay the U.S. government billions of dollars — more than $17.5 billion, in fact, if BP is judged to have acted with gross negligence. And there are potentially billions in damages more for state and local governments as well — money that could come fairly soon if, as expected, BP ends up settling rather than going to court. Suddenly tens of billions of dollars could be available to remake the Gulf Coast’s economy and its environment — if the money is used in the right way.

Continue reading article at Time.

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