BP ponies up

$218 million in Gulf of Mexico oil spill compensation called ‘a great step forward’ for Louisiana

Published: Monday, November 01, 2010, 8:45 PM

Mark Schleifstein, The Times-Picayune
See full article here

Surrounded by state and local officials, seafood dealers, restaurateurs and oyster growers, Gov. Bobby Jindal and BP America chairman and president Lamar McKay announced Monday that the company would advance the state $218 million to pay for seafood marketing and promotion, tourism promotion and barrier island restoration.

Gov. Bobby Jindal greets Harlon Pearce, owner of LA Fish & Seafood and chairman of the Louisiana Seafood Promotion and Marketing Board, after the governor’s news conference Monday at the Acme Oyster House.

“We’re not declaring victory, but today is a great step forward for our state,” Jindal said during a news conference at Acme Oyster House in the French Quarter.

“The set of agreements we’re announcing today is another example of BP’s commitment to doing what is in the best interest for the state and the people of Louisiana,” McKay said.

Jindal said the agreement represents an interim payment by BP to the state, with billions more expected from future settlements to compensate coastal states and the federal government for restoring damage to natural resources from the Gulf of Mexico oil spill, and from fines by BP and other responsible parties for violating the Clean Water Act.

Jindal said he expects a much larger advance payment from BP for those two categories soon.

“I’ll go ahead and say the time frame they’re looking at is several weeks,” Jindal said, with the biggest percentage expected to be given to Louisiana, where the largest share of oil from BP’s Macondo well washed ashore.

“We expect it absolutely to total in the billions of dollars,” Jindal said.

Last week, BP announced a similar $20 million settlement with Florida for seafood testing and marketing.

The agreement announced Monday calls for spending $18 million — $6 million a year for three years — to test seafood for oil, dispersants or other oil spill related impacts. That money is in addition to an August agreement under which BP will pay $13 million over three years for research by state fisheries biologists on the effects of the spill on fishery resources.

Louisiana Department of Wildlife & Fisheries Secretary Robert Barham said the money would pay for a continuation of existing testing procedures.

However, a marine biologist with the Environmental Defense Fund warned that the existing testing methods — even a new protocol announced last week to test for dispersants — may not be adequate to restore the public’s confidence in seafood caught in once-oiled waters.

“Just doing more of the same thing will not make people rush back to Gulf seafood,” said Tim Fitzgerald, senior policy analyst for the environmental group.

He said testing officials in Louisiana, other Gulf Coast states and the federal government should revise testing procedures to meet public concerns, which could include more comprehensive chemical testing of more fish species in more locations.

Another $10 million a year for three years will be given by BP to the Louisiana Wildlife and Fisheries Foundation to market Louisiana seafood, with the money to be managed by the Louisiana Seafood Promotion and Marketing Board.

Harlon Pearce, chairman of the Louisiana Seafood Promotion and Marketing Board, said the organization expects to spend $12 million in the first year of its new promotion program, with part of the money underwriting the cost of sending an 18-wheeler around the country staffed with celebrity chefs to cook Louisiana seafood.

“We’ve been putting out fires for the last six months,” Pearce said. “Now we have the chance to get aggressive with our marketing campaign, and market into the future.”

The state also will be given $30 million over three years to help rebuild tourism. That will include $10.5 billion for a Louisiana-wide campaign that also will focus on nature-based tourism; $6 million aimed at coastal tourism, $6 million for New Orleans tourism, and another $7.5 million to underwrite tourism events.

A recent poll conducted for the state Department of Culture, Recreation and Tourism found that 29 percent of those with plans to visit Louisiana cancelled or postponed their trips because of the spill, with 28 percent of poll respondents saying they believed the effects of the spill were as bad or worse than Hurricanes Katrina and Rita in 2005, while 80 percent believed the spill will affect the state for at least two years.

“The No. 1 reason people come to Louisiana is to enjoy our cuisine, a seafood brand that has been developed over a hundred years and a seafood brand worth investing in and protecting,” said Lt. Gov. Scott Angelle. “You can understand why a mother in Birmingham or a mother in Houston or a father in Atlanta would not purchase Louisiana seafood. And there is an incredible link between seafood and our tourism business.”
New Orleans restaurateur Ralph Brennan agreed.

“To me, it’s just one more step in a series of steps we have to take,” he said.
The agreement with BP also requires the company to reset the three-year payment periods for the testing and seafood and tourism promotion programs if additional oil from the spill causes future fishery closures, Jindal said.

The money promised for barrier island restoration projects actually is the last $140 million of the $360 million BP agreed to pay for building sand berms along barrier islands on the east and west sides of the Mississippi River earlier this year.

The money would be used to “transition” the controversial berm projects into full-blown barrier island rebuilding projects. A number of environmental groups and several federal agencies have criticized construction of the berms as potentially damaging to the barrier islands they are supposed to protect and to the wildlife and fisheries using the islands as habitat.

But Jindal repeated his administration’s contentions that the berms have done a good job in capturing oil that might have been much more difficult to remove from interior wetlands, and that using the berms to expand the size of nearby barrier islands will continue to protect those wetlands from BP oil if it surfaces during future hurricane seasons.

“As we move forward in discussing damages and recovery funding with BP, we’ve also been working on plans to fortify these temporary sand berms for oil protection so they can become barrier islands that not only block oil, but also to help restore and protect our coast,” Jindal said.

A portion of the money will be used for completing berms already under construction.
The berm projects are either on the shoreline of existing barrier islands or a few feet away. The new proposal will allow the construction to shift to actually restoring the islands’ habitat by adding sediment platforms behind them for marsh grasses, and other features that promote wildlife.

The state also is in negotiations with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to speed the use of about $40 million in federal Breaux Act money targeted to rebuilding Pelican Island, on the west side of the river below Scofield Bay. One of the state’s berm projects is located on the southern edge of the island.

Some of the BP money could be used to speed other proposed projects, including a Breaux Act project slated for nearby Scofield Island and a federal Louisiana Coastal Area project proposed for Shell Island.

The state also is negotiating with the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service about a similar restoration strategy that would incorporate a berm built along a northern stretch of the Chandeleur Islands.

Jindal said the state also is completing work on a separate agreement with BP to help finance construction of several new fish hatcheries and to help underwrite the cost of a new oyster seeding program.

Mark Schleifstein can be reached at mschleifstein@timespicayune.com or 504.826.3327.

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