In Mobile, Alabama the trustees from the Natural Resources Damage Assessment (NRDA Trustees) held a public meeting on Thursday November 30th so that the six working groups (Trustee Implementation Groups or TIGs) spending this source of BP penalty money could report on the past year’s activities and flag important goals for 2018. Each Gulf state from Florida to Texas has its own TIG and there are two that apply to the Gulf in general: the Region wide (Gulf wide) TIG and the Open Ocean TIG.
The meeting was ambitious and sought to present a year’s worth of information on restoration projects in all five Gulf states and the cross-boundary efforts. Each of the six trustee groups provided a powerpoint with summary statistics about the types of projects funded: restoring water quality, replenishing and protecting living coastal and marine resources, restoring and conserving habitats, and providing and enhancing recreational opportunities. A great deal of information was given at a general level of detail. The night began with an hour-long open house which was like a very noisy cocktail party with no drinks or food during which representatives of the six TIG groups manned display tables and fielded questions from attendees. After this, everyone was seated in a large conference room for a series of presentations.
The Congressional Oil Pollution Act of 1990 (OPA) is a statute enacted after the Exxon Valdez oil tanker disaster in Alaska. After a major oil spill, there must be a formal natural resource damage assessment or NRDA. In the Deepwater Horizon BP disaster, evaluation of damage to the Gulf of Mexico’s pelagic waters, barrier islands, beaches, bays and marshes and the affected marine life (fish, birds, mammals, invertebrates) began even while the oil from the Deepwater Horizon was still flowing into the deep Gulf. The damage and impacts to biological productivity and the loss of human recreational use due to the oiled water and land was quantified in a very complicated and formal accounting in order to arrive at monetary compensation able to be assessed as Oil Pollution Act penalties.
The NRDA process after the Deepwater Horizon spill would have proceeded on its own separate track toward penalties but for the settlement that BP reached with the states. The OPA accounting which requires the NRDA assessment became one part of a general, global settlement of claims and became one of three basic legs of the historic BP settlement. In this settlement reached among BP and the various claimants, states and federal agencies the RESTORE Act directed 80% of Clean Water Act fines to the Gulf States, NRDA damages were assessed and placed in trust via the accounting required in OPA, and some early settlement payouts from BP’s business contractors in rig operation/oilfield services were placed in trust for distribution by the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation or NFWF.
Out of the gumbo of acronyms surrounding the three main sources of money from the settlement, each signifying hundreds of millions of dollars, NRDA is the one that arguably focuses the most money on ecological restoration and comparatively less on economic harm to society. Environment-focused groups like Gulf Restoration Network want to see this money applied to sound, science-driven restoration of living resources, and repair of habitats for fish, oysters, birds, dolphins, whales, shrimp, coral, and other marine life.
Earlier this year, Mississippi’s Department of Environmental Quality held a Restoration Summit in Biloxi in mid-November during which it reported on the state’s progress in using money from all three sources, NRDA, RESTORE Act, and NFWF for various ecological and economic restoration projects. At this summit, it was possible to go into depth on some of the projects, and the resulting narratives were well received.
What was possible in Biloxi, but not in Mobile was some in-depth storytelling on selected projects. There was no way for the NRDA Trustee presenters in Mobile to tell engaging stories about the restoration projects happening in all 5 states, plus cover the gulf wide and Open Ocean TIG groups. There was simply too much information (Five plans covering 65 projects costing hundreds of millions) to transmit in way too short a time period. They tried, but the state-by-state presentations ended up being repetitive. Numbers and projects blurred together so by the end it was hard to pick out any one interesting project feature to take home and talk about.
The interesting storytelling that did happen in Mobile came during the comments that were solicited by the NRDA Trustees after the six presentations. One commenter in particular was memorable. Mr. Ryan Bradley representing commercial fishing interests in Mississippi told the assembled trustees that the $11 million early-NRDA spending on creating oyster bottoms from crushed limestone was a waste in the opinion of the local oystermen because oyster larvae (spat) had not settled on these hard bottoms and oyster recruitment was very low considering the expense. He asked the trustees to please involve the oyster growers at an earlier stage during habitat enhancement projects to ask for their input on the selection of cultch material before spreading it on public reefs. Mr. Bradley also asked the trustees to please direct some of the funds and/or research toward solving the problem of the Gulf Dead Zone that causes low oxygen levels and reduces the area of fishable water for shrimpers.
Some commenters pointed to successful projects like an Alabama oyster shell recycling project that collects shell from restaurants and processors and creates reefs with it. Some asked the trustees to hurry up and produce some guidance documents on monitoring and adaptive management that seem to be too slow in coming together. The trustees were asked to share plans earlier, and to focus projects on watersheds in a holistic way like the RESTORE Council projects attempt to do. Some commenters took the NRDA trustees to task on public engagement and a perceived lack of transparency. One of the last commenters asked that there be beach reconstruction of the west end of Dauphin Island at the mouth of Mobile Bay.
It seems that a better approach at telling the story of the NRDA projects needs to be explored before this trustee council convenes again with one of these regular meetings. The “acronym gumbo” needs to yield to some more meaningful take-home messages about projects and how they improve the resources that people use and care about. Less may actually be more. Also judging from the audience, there needs to be an attempt to take the NRDA meetings to lay people – to better engage coastal residents who may not be technically inclined, but are interested in the final product of marsh restoration, adding to public lands, or oyster reef building – more fish habitat, more oysters. Many of the people in the crowd were with state agencies, federal agencies, academic institutions, engineering companies, non-profit environmental and social justice groups, and city and local governments. There was a bit of preaching to the choir in this effort as these people were not new to NRDA. Mississippi has tried to make these restoration processes fairly accessible to lay people at its two Restoration Summits in 2016 and 2017. The NRDA Trustees could possibly borrow a page from Mississippi’s playbook and try something similar next time.
Andrew Whitehurst is GRN's water program director and covers Mississippi wetland and water issues from Madison, Ms.