Sep 28, 2010 9:38 PM by Alison Haynes
NEW ORLEANS (AP) - President Barack Obama endorsed a plan
Tuesday to rehabilitate the Gulf of Mexico with some of the
billions of dollars in water pollution fines expected from the
companies responsible for the worst offshore oil spill in U.S.
Navy Secretary Ray Mabus, the government's point person on Gulf
coast restoration, also said some of the money could be used to
repair sections of the Gulf ravaged by events other than the spill.
Mabus says it would be up to Congress to determine how much of
fines to set aside for the overall restoration. Obama said he will
ask Congress to dedicate the money.
"The Mabus report offers a commonsense proposal for a path
forward, relying on the ideas and coordination of efforts at the
local, state, tribal, and federal levels, as well as of nonprofits
and the private sector," the president said.
Dedicating fines levied against BP and other companies involved
in the Deepwater Horizon accident to restoration and directly to
Gulf states, which the Mabus plan calls for, will require a change
in law. Currently, Clean Water Act fines go into a trust fund to
pay for oil spill cleanups.
An April 20 rig explosion in the Gulf killed 11 workers and led
to 206 million gallons of oil spewing from BP PLC's undersea well.
Penalties can be levied against BP, which owned the well and was
leasing the rig that exploded, under a variety of environmental
protection laws, including fines of up to $1,100 under the Clean
Water Act for each barrel of oil spilled. If BP were found to have
committed gross negligence or willful misconduct, the fine could be
up to $4,300 per barrel.
That means that based on the 4.9 million barrels released from
the Macondo well, BP could face civil fines under the Clean Water
Act alone of between $5.4 billion and $21.1 billion.
At a news conference in New Orleans to unveil the plan, Mabus
said he envisions some of the money from the fines being spent on
repairing wetlands damaged over the years by the construction of
canals to serve coastal oilfields. With the equipment and manpower
already in the Gulf repairing damage from the oil spill, Mabus said
it would be cheaper and more efficient to also repair the coastline
from other damage it has suffered over the years.
Mabus is proposing that a panel be set up to administer any
money set aside from the fines for coastal restoration. He said
there should be a federal and state chair on the panel.
In Washington, Richard Stewart, who led the government's
prosecution of Exxon for the Exxon Valdez incident, told the
national oil spill commission Tuesday that criminal charges and
stiff civil penalties will likely drive BP to settle. Stewart now
teaches law at New York University.
A Justice Department official said that no settlement talks are
taking place between the Obama administration and BP over fines for
the spill, contradicting a congressman's suggestion earlier that
such talks were taking place. The Justice Department official spoke
on condition of anonymity because criminal and civil investigations
of BP are continuing.
Rep. Steve Scalise, R-La., who attended the news conference at
the Port of New Orleans with Mabus, had told The Associated Press
that BP and the Obama administration were discussing a possible
settlement over fines related to the spill that would avoid a
costly legal fight. He said his staff got information about the
talks while working on oil spill-related legislation he is
Scalise and Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La., support legislation that
would require that at least 80 percent of the civil and criminal
penalties charged to BP under the Clean Water Act be returned to
the Gulf Coast for long-term economic and environmental recovery.
The bill is still pending.
Even before Mabus announced his plan for the restoration fund,
state and local officials were saying how it should be spent and
"My view is that it should be specific to the injury and the
subject that we are dealing with," Landrieu said during testimony
before the oil spill commission Obama set up to investigate the
accident. She named coastal restoration, ocean education, energy
infrastructure and levee protection as possible projects.
Landrieu said the money should be used not just for "restoring
what we had, but building what we need," something that she said
had bipartisan support.
Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour, a Republican, joined Landrieu
before the panel Tuesday. He said that "anything that resulted
from this oil spill should be the first priority" for the money.
He also was clear that he didn't want bureaucrats in Washington
deciding how it was spent.
"Washington, D.C. is not going to tell the Mississippi Gulf
Coast how to rebuild the Mississippi Gulf Coast," Barbour said.
Obama has said repeatedly Gulf Coast residents should decide, and
Mabus, a former Mississippi governor, has traveled throughout the
region to gather information from local officials.
Obama is expected to sign an executive order soon to carry out
another of the report's recommendations, setting up a Gulf Coast
Ecosystem Restoration Task Force, which would coordinate the money
and help decide which project are funded until Congress sets up a
council. Environmental Protection Agency administrator Lisa
Jackson, a New Orleans native, will lead it.