With $114M to spend after BP spill, Gulf Coast restoration begins

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BILOXI — More than 150 state and federal agencies, environmental nonprofits, elected officials and others met in Biloxi Tuesday to learn more about restoring the Mississippi Gulf Coast after the 2010 BP oil spill and the funding streams that bolster those efforts.

The summit came on the heels of the announcement from Gov. Phil Bryant about 15 restoration projects totaling more than $114 million in federal funds focusing on improving water quality, marine resources and land acquisition for conservation.

This money is different from BP settlement money that will pay $750 million over 17 years to the Mississippi Budget Contingency Fund for appropriation by the state legislature. In 2016, Mississippi received $150 million from that fund.

The projects were announced as part of Mississippi Department of Environmental Quality’s first-ever Mississippi Restoration Summit, which brought together government agencies, nonprofit groups, academic experts and others to get up-to-date on the state’s restoration efforts more than six years after a massive oil spill caused one of the largest environmental disasters in history just off the Gulf of Mexico.

Marc Wyatt, MDEQ’s director of the Office of Restoration, said he estimates up to 500 people attended the summit.

“This evening we will highlight some of our higher profile projects and let people look under the hood, so to speak, at our process,” Wyatt said.

The summit, which took place at the Mississippi Coast Coliseum and Convention Center, highlighted the state’s current restoration efforts; projects planned for 2017; and how to navigate the financial resources that back those restoration projects.

Mississippi’s restoration funds come from three pots, so to speak. They include: the RESTORE Act, National Fish and Wildlife Foundation and the National Resource Damage Assessment.

Since 2012, more than $388.4 million has gone to Mississippi restoration projects, which range from water and marine living resources to economic projects, according to MDEQ.

Also on Tuesday, the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation announced Mississippi and the four other Gulf Coast states receiving nearly $370 million for 24 projects to restore natural resources damaged by the oil spill.

The Magnolia State is getting $16 million for two projects: One will expand a program to monitor and help coastal birds, while the other is aimed at protect marine mammals and sea turtles.

Jason Rider, a spokesman for the Mississippi Department of Marine Resources, manned a table at the summit exhibiting equipment used in farming oysters.

He said the Department of Marine Resources has proposed creating a program using RESTORE Act restoration funds that would teach Mississippi residents how to cultivate oysters in a way that is not currently done in Mississippi. The method is called off-bottom oyster farming.

MDEQ is still reviewing the department’s proposal, he said.

“The economic benefit is that it diversifies the traditional oyster industry into a new way to manage the resource,” Rider said. “We’re having a really hard time over in the west side of the state with traditional harvesting and this is a new opportunity for them. It would provide a new way to provide an income for Gulf Shore fisherman.”

There’s currently no such program in the state and the department would also like to help with federal and state regulations to ease interested farmers into the process, Rider said.

Wyatt, of MDEQ, said the restoration would be a very complicated process.

“Not just the science, but the financial pieces also,” he said. “It can get quite confusing.”

RESTORE Act Projects:

Mississippi Gulf Coast Water Quality Improvement Program (Two projects — $45 million and $11 million) — This program will begin to identify and repair the areas along the coast that are having issues with water quality. With this initial investment, there is an expected decrease in the number of beach advisories.

University of Southern Mississippi Oyster Hatchery ($7.7 million) – The money will fund the acquisition of an oyster hatchery and research center. The hatchery is state of the art and will be operated by the University of Southern Mississippi.

 Pascagoula Oyster Reef Relay and Enhancement ($3.5 million) – The enhancement will invest money in relaying oysters from unharvestable reefs to harvestable reefs and using the best science to select locations and to maximize oyster production.

 North Rail Connector Planning Assistance ($550,000) — This project is the number one economic development priority in Jackson County. The funds will pay for planning, strategizing and permitting needs that will move the rail connector forward.

 NOARC ($2.75 million) – The National Oceans and Applications Research Center is designed to create the sky-to-sea market in Mississippi. It will attract new industries for environmental monitoring to the Mississippi Gulf Coast and establish an area for them to demonstrate their technologies.

 Salvation Army Center of Hope ($1.32 million) — The Center for Hope will bolster workforce development for the Coast. Located in North Gulfport, it will provide activities such as job skills for the labor force so that people have a better opportunity to invest in themselves and their families.

 Mississippi Coast Coliseum and Convention Center ($3.52 million) — The Coliseum and Convention center has the capacity to be a world-class facility and attract larger conference audiences. In order to do this, the coliseum needs to make site improvements. This project will support capacity improvements at the facility.

 Compatibility, Coordination, and Restoration Planning (Two projects totaling$1.8 million) – Funds support of restoration planning.

 National Fish and Wildlife Foundation Projects:

 Mississippi Marine Mammal and Turtle Conservation, Recovery and Monitoring Program ($9.9 million) – This project will invest over $9.9 million in dolphins and sea turtles and will help its partners lead the Gulf in restoration and research. This project will also help establish Mississippi State University as a leader in marine veterinary science.

It is a partnership among Mississippi State, the University of Southern Mississippi, the Mississippi Department of Environmental Quality and the Mississippi Department of Marine Resources.

 Coastal Bird Stewardship in Mississippi ($6.2 million) – This provides $6.2 million for coastal bird assessment and stewardship of the species and its habitat. Partners are Mississippi State, National Audubon Society, the Mississippi Department of Environmental Quality and the Mississippi Department of Marine Resources.

 Natural Resource Damage Assessment (NRDA) Projects:

 Graveline Bay ($11 million) – Money will be used to purchase key tracts to conserve habitat and invest in restoration at Graveline Bay. The project will protect wildlife for generations to come.

 Grand Bay ($6 million) – This project fulfills the same purpose as the Graveline Bay investment.

 Upper Pascagoula River Nutrient Reduction Alternatives ($4 million) — An investment of $4 million will improve water quality on the Pascagoula River, one of most important rivers in the state and the southeast.