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Back from the Edge

Four years after Gulf oil spill, some Texas restoration projects are set to begin.

By Sheryl Smith-Rodgers

For weeks, the news reports horrified us. Would the British Petroleum Deepwater Horizon oil blowout — located nearly 50 miles off the coast of Louisiana in the Gulf of Mexico — ever be stopped? Not only had 11 men died when the offshore drilling platform exploded April 20, 2010, but efforts to plug the gushing pipe on the ocean floor kept failing. Finally, 87 days later, crews with BP and the U.S. Coast Guard announced that they’d successfully capped the well.

Four years later, litigation associated with the worst oil spill in U.S. history still remains in court. Some cases — namely those against BP — could take years to resolve. So, until then, we won’t know exactly how much Texas will receive in compensation for any damage linked to the nearly 5 million barrels of crude oil released into the Gulf.

In the meantime, the state has already received recovery funds related to the disaster. In June 2012, a $2 million share of a $90 million settlement with BP’s minority partner MOEX allowed the Texas Parks and Wildlife Depart­ment to purchase Big Tree Ranch, a 78-acre property that provides habitat and winter forage for endangered whooping cranes in Matagorda County. (The ranch encircles its namesake champion live oak.)

This summer, five Texas projects for dune, marsh and bay habitat restoration should get going, funded by a criminal case settlement with BP and partner Transocean. Later this year, five more Texas projects could get approved in the latest round of early restoration funding through a process called Natural Resource Damage Assessment.

BP and NRDA

Whenever significant accidents involving hazardous substances occur, a lengthy review process called Natural Resource Damage Assessment begins. Right away, certain federal and state agencies called Natural Resource Trustees initiate studies to determine the extent of damage and devise a plan on how to restore the habitat. Generally, the complicated process can take years to complete. (Texas’ three trustees are TPWD, the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality and the General Land Office.)

That said, one year after the Deepwater Horizon rig blew, the trustees successfully negotiated a landmark agreement with BP to fund $1 billion in early restoration projects along the Gulf Coast. The payment will go toward the company’s liability for natural resource damages, which have yet to be resolved in court. Working with Natural Resource Trustees, BP so far has funded numerous projects in two phases that will restore heavily damaged habitats in Alabama, Florida, Louisiana and Mississippi.

Oil spill

Oil from the 2010 Deepwater Horizon spill washed up on beaches along the upper Texas coast.

Ecologically, Texas received direct impacts in the form of oil patches and scattered tar balls that washed up on the upper coast in July 2010. Additionally, the state lost untold recreational dollars when tourists canceled travel plans to the Gulf Coast after the incident.

So as part of Phase III, five projects in Texas — which have nearly completed the NRDA process and will cost approximately $18.8 million — could get the green light this fall. Two projects will enhance facilities at Galveston Island and Sea Rim state parks; three will construct artificial reefs off the Texas Gulf Coast.

“These projects are more about mitigating for the state’s lost recreational opportunities after the spill,” explains Dale Shively, who leads TPWD’s artificial reef program. “The artificial reefs will create more marine habitat and increase diving and fishing opportunities.”

Though the projects have been proposed, one, some or all could still be shelved.

“Just because they got initial approval and were proposed for public review is no guarantee that they’re going to come out the back end of the process,” cautions Robin Riechers, division director of TPWD’s Coastal Fisheries. “All Phase III projects proposed for across the Gulf are going through the final stages of addressing public comments and environmental compliance reviews.”

Don Pitts coordinates the program that’s responsible for trustee damage assessment and restoration activities at TPWD.

“These funds offer wonderful opportunities to put valuable ecological and recreational restoration projects into place in Texas,” he says. “We’re trying to make the very most of them.”

The initial five Texas projects (plus one alternative) would:

■ Construct two wildlife-viewing platforms, one restroom and a fish-cleaning shelter at Sea Rim State Park. Estimated cost: $210,100.

■ Build multi-use campsites, tent campsites, beach access boardwalks, equestrian facilities, day-use parking, a dump station and restrooms with showers at Galveston Island State Park. The new facilities will be built on the state park’s beach side. Estimated cost: $10,745,060.

Oil spill

Creation of artificial reefs using pyramids is on the list of Texas projects.

■ Construct a new 160-acre artificial reef site approximately 10 miles southeast of Matagorda County. A contracted company will use a crane to lower 1,600 three-sided concrete pyramids (10-foot base and 8 feet tall) on sand approximately 60 feet below the water’s surface. Estimated cost: $3,552,398.

■ Place 800 to 950 pyramids in the existing 160-acre Freeport artificial reef site, located 6 miles south of Freeport. The project would complete the reef. Currently, the site contains the sunken George Vancouver Liberty Ship, a popular reef that attracts anglers and divers. Estimated cost: $2,155,365.

■ Construct a new 80-acre ship reef site 67 miles offshore of Galveston. “This project will depend on whether we can find a contractor who can get a large enough ship, clean it to our standards, and then reef it,” Shively says. Estimated cost: $1,919,765.

If a ship cannot be found, concrete pyramids will be added to an existing 160-acre Corpus Christi reef site, located 11 miles east of Packery Channel near the Corpus Christi Bay.

NFWF’s Gulf Environmental Benefit Fund

In early 2013, BP and Transocean settled with the U.S. Department of Justice to resolve criminal charges related to the oil spill (Transocean also settled its civil claims). Under the agreement, the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation established the Gulf Environmental Benefit Fund to allocate $2.544 billion in payments over a five-year period. Of that, Texas should receive $203 million to fund projects that benefit marine habitats and species.

So far, five Texas projects — which have gone through a lengthy review process and received final approval — will cost approximately $8.8 million. These five projects, expected to get started by this summer, will:

■ Restore 13 acres of dune habitat at Sea Rim State Park by building sand fencing and planting native vegetation. Award amount: $189,400.

■ Create 30 acres of marsh at Galveston Island State Park to provide habitat for fish and migratory birds. Award amount: $2,489,200.

■ Purchase and manage 3,200 acres in the West Bay Conservation Corridor to protect critical coastal habitat for fish and birds. Award amount: $4,075,000.

■ Add about 30 acres of oyster cultch (broken shells and other materials that form an oyster bed’s foundation) to a planned 130-acre reef project in eastern Galveston Bay. Award amount: $840,000.

■ Create and restore freshwater wetland habitats on private lands within the Texas Chenier Plain (a complex of four national wildlife refuges) to meet the foraging needs of migratory waterfowl. Award amount: $1,250,000.

Future funding

Along with money yet to come from the NRDA and the NFWF Gulf fund sources, a third funding component for restoration projects will eventually come through the RESTORE Act (Resources and Ecosystems Sustain­ability, Tourist Opportunity, and Revived Economies of the Gulf States Act), which created the Gulf Coast Restoration Fund. Enacted in July 2012, the federal law mandates that 80 percent of civil and administrative penalties levied against Deepwater Horizon defendants will be paid to the Gulf Coast fund. Without this particular bill, the monies would have gone into the U.S. Treasury or the Oil Spill Liability Trust Fund, which pays for responses to future spills.

Oil spill

Crews conducted controlled burns of oil in the Gulf after the Deepwater Horizon spill.

To date, more than 1,000 projects connected to the Deepwater Horizon spill have been proposed. To be considered, a project must meet certain criteria set by the RESTORE Council. Proposed Texas projects listed online (gulfspillrestoration.noaa.gov) include wetland and marsh restorations, wastewater treatment plant upgrades, habitat acquisitions and a toad recovery program, to name only a few. The State of Texas is working on a website where eventually people can learn more about all three BP spill restoration funding streams, see proposed projects and suggest their own project ideas.

“They’re all worthy of implementation,” says Laura Huffman, Texas director of the Nature Conservancy in Austin. “Of our proposed projects, we have two that we consider to be priorities. One is acquisition of one of the last intact coastal ranches of its size in Texas. The other is an oyster reef restoration project in Galveston Bay.”

So far, the Galveston Bay Foundation has submitted at least six proposals.

“We’re looking for larger ecosystem projects that will improve the health of our coast,” says foundation President Bob Stokes. “Our projects largely target the restoration of wetlands and oyster reef and seagrass habitats along with shoreline protection and land acquisition. We are also working with other organizations like the National Wildlife Federation to ensure adequate freshwater inflow into Galveston Bay, which may involve purchasing water rights from willing sellers along our big tributaries.”

One last chance

For too long, the world’s ninth-largest body of water — a richly diversified and highly productive natural resource — has been taken for granted and abused. Many experts believe that Deepwater Horizon’s massive amounts of crude oil combined with more than 1.8 million gallons of chemical dispersants (used to break down surface oil slicks) have damaged deep-water communities more than we’ll ever know.

“This blowout was different because a significant amount of oil drifted through the Gulf like clouds,” says Larry McKinney, executive director of the Harte Research Institute for Gulf of Mexico Studies at Texas A&M University–Corpus Christi. “Imagine spraying a can of deodorizer into the air. Some droplets drift away while others fall. That’s what happened in the Gulf. Any animals, like coral, that the oil droplets hit were either killed or affected. We’re just now learning how larval fish like tuna and red snapper have been affected.”

McKinney thinks we don’t know the full story yet.

“On the surface, the Gulf has recovered,” he says, “but we haven’t been able yet to determine the long-term damage. The Gulf is a dynamic ecosystem that changes all the time and varies from year to year. That makes it difficult to detect long-term trends.”

From McKinney’s perspective, RESTORE dollars will come just in the nick of time.

“The Gulf of Mexico is very resilient, like a rubber band that snaps back and absorbs a lot of punishment,” McKinney says. “But eventually, the Gulf will not snap back. One of these days, productivity will go down and not recover. Money from RESTORE will give us a chance to reboot in the Gulf. This is a tremendous opportunity to address problems that are beyond the oil spill, such as the loss of freshwater habitats and dead zones. RESTORE could bring the Gulf of Mexico back from the edge.”

 


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