Several years into BP settlement spending, the bulk of Mississippi’s restoration work remains undone

By , | Published Nov 10, 2020 | Mississippi Today
Several years into BP settlement spending, the bulk of Mississippi’s restoration work remains undone

Credit: Eric J. Shelton

Capt. Louis Skrmetta still remembers what happened to the clear green water near Ship Island a decade ago.

“It looked like taffy, floating through the water. Brown, caramel taffy.”

Skrmetta, like many Mississippi Gulf Coast residents, saw firsthand the damage the Deepwater Horizon oil spill caused the state’s natural resources. Now, ten years after one of the nation’s worst ecological disasters, the tour boat captain and other business owners, conservationists and residents across the Coast are scrutinizing Mississippi’s recovery effort that brought billions into the state’s coffers, even as legal hurdles and other red tape has made completing the restoration a hard slog.

April marked the 10-year anniversary of an explosion that killed 11 workers, sent 134 million gallons of crude petroleum gushing into the Mississippi Sound for over two months and caused an estimated $60 billion in damages.

In 2016, the Department of Justice reached the largest environmental damages settlement in history, forcing United Kingdom-based BP to pay more than $20 billion. That money, combined with over $2 billion in criminal penalties — as well as smaller settlements against Transocean and Anadarko, two companies that owned the vessel and part of the well, respectively — is earmarked over the next decade or so through several federal funding programs and the five Gulf states of Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and Florida.

In addition to $750 million for economic damages, Mississippi is expected to receive $1.3 billion for environmental restoration projects by 2031.

Our analysis also shows that of the roughly dozen completed restoration projects so far — a process overseen by the Mississippi Department of Environmental Quality — nearly 80% of funds went to non-environmental projects. These include $14 million for the Gulfport Aquarium, $10 million for the INFINITY Science Center in Pearlington, and $4 million for the Popp’s Ferry Causeway Park in Biloxi.

About 60% of the total current project funding had gone towards environmental projects as of last December, showing that much of the state’s ecological restoration is still in progress.

Spending around water quality in particular, which MDEQ frames as a top priority, has lagged behind other areas. While other projects address the issue, the state’s central focus on water quality is to fix the Coast’s aging sewer system, a project that had received less than a million dollars in spending as of last December.

Officials and experts who have observed the process say that although the oil spill happened ten years ago, much of the restoration process could not begin until after the 2016 settlement. Even so, and despite some early success restoring coastal habitat, some environmental stakeholders are skeptical that the state is prioritizing its top restoration goals with its spending, while others are concerned that Mississippi is missing a cohesive approach to restoration.

Eric J. Shelton Credit: Eric J. Shelton

“A long-term impact on a way of life”

After the explosion in 2010, Haley Barbour, Mississippi’s Republican governor at the time, demanded BP pay the entire cost of the cleanup.

“Nothing is satisfactory until the well is shut in. When the well is capped, then clean up the oil, and then BP pays the bills. Until all of that is done, nothing is satisfactory,” Barbour said at the time.

Upon visiting the Gulf that June, then-President Obama vowed that the “full resources of the federal government are being mobilized to confront” the spill’s damages.

“There’s a sense that this disaster is not only threatening our fishermen and our shrimpers and oystermen, not only affecting precious marshes and wetlands and estuaries,” Obama said. “There’s also a fear that it could have a long-term impact on a way of life that has been passed on for generations.”

After the spill, the Mississippi Department of Environmental Quality landed on three primary goals for the state’s $1.3 billion, which it said are based largely on conversations with local Coast stakeholders: improving water quality, restoring marine resources, and conserving coastal habitat.

“In our engagement with the public, if I heard it once I heard it a thousand times, that there’s this real issue regarding water quality along I-90, in the beaches and bay area,” said Gary Rikard, MDEQ’s director from 2014 until January of this year.

Specifically, the Mississippi Sound’s water quality issues range from fecal bacteria near beaches as a result of sewage malfunctions, to freshwater influxes from openings of the Bonnet Carré Spillway, to blue-green algae that form from nutrient runoff. These issues limit residents’ access to the water, impair the safety of seafood, and harm the wellbeing of marine life.

Eric J. Shelton Credit: Eric J. Shelton

The state has spent BP funds on several projects that address water quality: acquiring land that had been privately owned to help reduce harmful runoff; rebuilding the oyster population, which acts as a water filter; and implementing natural living shorelines with marshes, which, like oysters, remove excess nutrients, reducing the potential for harmful algae blooms.

Some of the issues are outside the state’s control. For example, after a record-breaking two openings of the Bonnet Carré Spillway last year, which wiped out marine life and left fishermen reeling, federal officials said earlier this year that any change in the spillway’s operation would require congressional action. The spillway openings cause sharp changes to the Gulf’s salinity, which in 2019 killed nearly all of the state’s oysters and over half of its shrimp and blue crabs.

But of what the state can control with BP funds, MDEQ has budgeted the largest amount — $68 million — to upgrade the Coast’s aging sewage and wastewater treatment systems. As old sewer pipes deteriorate, bacteria leak out through cracks. During heavy rains, which occur more frequently due to climate change, stormwater flushes bacteria into the Mississippi Sound.

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