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Several years into BP settlement spending, the bulk of Mississippi’s restoration work remains undone
Ten years after the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, the state is slowly pushing billions in settlement dollars towards coastal restoration.
By Alex Rozier | November 10, 2020
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.
A Mississippi Today analysis of BP spending shows that the bulk of the restoration work remains undone. As of last December — the most recent figures available — Mississippi had spent $134 million of an obligated $576 million total, leaving more than $700 million left for future projects.
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.
“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.
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.
Since 2017 alone, MDEQ has issued 237 water contact advisories along the Coast because of bacteria or sewage issues.
“It’s distressing, it’s frustrating, and it’s embarrassing,” said Skrmetta, whose family has operated Ship Island Excursions for 94 years. “It’s starting to become a situation where economically, it’s adversely impacting my way of life, my living, when folks decide to bypass the Mississippi Gulf Coast and head east.”
Restoration of the water
Now, after identifying sewage areas and treatment plants to upgrade or repair, MDEQ is beginning to implement specific projects with RESTORE Act funds. Yet as of last December, the state had spent less than $1 million of the $68 million obligated — money the agency budgets before receiving — towards the program.
“If we haven’t addressed wastewater treatment and storm water runoff, then we really haven’t spent that money on the things that we can have a positive impact on,” said Teresse Collins, vice president of the nonprofit Gulf Island Conservancy.
For some directly working on the response to the spill, it’s unclear why so little has been spent on that project while non-environmental projects, such as the new Mississippi Aquarium in Gulfport, which received $14 million in BP funds, are already completed.
“We have yet to see any project that really makes an impact in terms of improving the water quality or restoring the production of the species,” said Daniel Le of Boat People SOS, a nonprofit that supports local Vietnamese-American communities and worked closely with fishermen recovering from the spill. “There’s a lot of projects being proposed that are land-based that have nothing to do with the restoration of the water.”
Le said he and local fishermen were active in attending the state’s early meetings that looked to engage Coast stakeholders on the spending process, but they stopped going after not seeing the progress they hoped for. “I think a lot of the fishing community has basically given up,” he said.
Each project must be approved by the agency or body overseeing that fund. These agencies include the RESTORE Council, the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, and NOAA. Some funding streams allow for a portion to be spent on economic development or recreational projects.
“I think you can see from the projects they have how (state and local governments) feel about the issues,” Collins added. “They may address an economic impact, they may look pretty, they may address a recreational concern, but do they really offset the negative impacts of the oil spill and the ongoing impacts? And if so, how?”
Chris Wells, who Gov. Tate Reeves appointed in January to lead MDEQ, addressed those concerns in an interview with Mississippi Today, explaining that the public doesn’t see much of the water quality work that has taken place so far, such as source tracking bacteria hotspots. He added that the typical timetable from proposing a project to getting money on the ground has taken between 18 to 24 months.
“Unfortunately a lot of what we have accomplished is not visible to people,” Wells said. “The aquarium is very visible to people. You can go out and see the progress on the construction of the aquarium, and that’s something tangible. But so much of the work that we’ve done has been laying that scientific groundwork, doing the engineering and design type work, and doing the stuff that’s literally under the water.”
Wells believes this year’s Restoration Summit on Nov. 10 will demonstrate the work that’s gone into studying water quality and other ecological concerns.
“So for somebody that’s been coming to the summit for four or five years now, I think it’s legitimate for them to say, ‘Well you’ve been talking about it, but what have you done?’” he said. “And that’s exactly what we’re going to be doing at the summit, is showing people.”
No centralized gameplan
Another common refrain among critics of the state’s restoration efforts centers on the apparent lack of a comprehensive plan to marshal funds from the oil spill with what is known as the Tidelands Fund — money from leases on the Coast’s submerged land — and GoMESA, a program that sends revenue to Gulf states from offshore oil and gas production.
Some conservationists point to Louisiana, which plugs various funding sources into its Coastal Master Plan to combat land loss.
“I think it’s something for Mississippi to continue to strive for,” said Johnny Marquez, director of Coastal Policy and Programs for the Mississippi Wildlife Federation. “Fifteen years of funding seems like a long time, but we’ll be worrying about these issues for many years after that. Having a plan that looks beyond just these restoration dollars is a worthwhile endeavor.”
State Sen. Scott DeLano, a Republican from Biloxi, voiced similar concerns in July during a political squabble over GoMESA funds.
“All these programs and projects are supposed to go to restoration, but there’s no central game plan for protecting or mitigating natural resources, just little pot shots,” DeLano said. “We’re still having all these constant beach closures (from pollution), after all this money spent. How are we not able to address the problem of effluent, or raw sewage, going into the Sound?”
DeLano said Gov. Tate Reeves is working with members of the Coast delegation towards that goal. Reeves’ office did not respond to requests to answer questions for this story.
Ashley Edwards, president and CEO of the Gulf Coast Business Council and chairman of the advisory board on spending economic damages money from the oil spill, echoed DeLano, emphasizing the cluster of disasters the Coast has had to rebound from.
“There has arguably been no region of America that has encountered more economic disruption over the past 15 years than coastal Mississippi,” Edwards said.
In that time, the Coast has faced several major hurricanes – including Katrina, Gustav, Ike and recently Zeta – increasingly frequent spillway openings, with the oil spill sandwiched in between. He said that although the Coast had historically been an economic driver for the state, it hasn’t recovered as well as the rest of Mississippi since the Great Recession in 2008.
A more cohesive plan for the various recovery streams, including the BP settlement, could be an important first step to helping the region bounce back, he said.
“It is pretty apparent quickly that we have more money to leverage here in economic growth than many of the regions we compete against in the United States,” Edwards added. “So it certainly stands to reason that we would have a coordinated, sophisticated strategy to get the more bang for our buck of all of those funding forces and position Coastal Mississippi to be more economically competitive.”
It takes time
Despite looming questions about the progress of water quality initiatives, many in the state’s conservation community applaud how Mississippi has used BP funds to tackle areas such as habitat restoration and land conservation.
One frequently cited example is Round Island in the Mississippi Sound, which eroded from 200 acres in the late 1800s to just 20 acres. The state used dredged materials to rebuild 220 acres of the Island, which serves as a natural storm protector and is now starting to see a return in coastal bird populations. For instance, one species, the Sandwich Tern, went from an island population of zero before the project in 2015 to over 1,000 in 2017.
“That to me is what restoration success is supposed to look like,” said Jill Mastrototaro of Audubon Mississippi, which partners with the state on a coastal bird stewardship program. She acknowledged that demonstrating success for a lot of the BP projects can be challenging because it requires years of monitoring to show results. “As we all know, science is for patient people, and I’m not necessarily one of them, but it takes time to get trends.”
The state has also spent BP funds on a number of land acquisition and easement projects, such as at Grand Bay in Jackson County, Turkey Creek, which feeds into the Back Bay in Biloxi, and several locations along the Upper Pascagoula River. Those projects, which so far have cost a combined $4 million, conserve the local habitats and also give the state more control around the downstream impacts to water quality.
One project underway that environmental groups are eagerly following is the Hancock County Living Shoreline. Especially during a record-breaking hurricane season, MDEQ is hoping that the $56 million-project will both combat erosion and restore habitat; the state, having spent about $30 million so far, has built breakwaters off the Coast that allow sediment to accumulate, and it just received funding to grow more than 40 acres of marsh, which will both provide a nursery for small species and help reduce storm surges.
On Tuesday, MDEQ’s Wells and his team will give their annual update on the state’s progress so far during a virtual Restoration Summit. He said that moving forward, the public will see “more and more” water quality projects, as well as continued investments in oyster rehabilitation and marsh construction.
While most in the conservation community agree Mississippi is better off now than before the spill, changes at the federal level leave some concerned about preventing similar disasters in the future. President Donald Trump’s administration has rolled back or is in the process of removing 20 drilling and extraction regulations, according to a New York Times analysis, including loosening safety protocols around blowout preventers, a policy written in direct response to the 2010 spill under the Obama administration.
“That’s something that I think is a travesty in a lot of respects because of what the Gulf and the people and the resources endured in the aftermath,” Mastrototaro of Audubon said.
The Trump administration had also unsuccessfully attempted to reinterpret the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, a law that helped direct funds from the oil spill towards conservation efforts.
Much of what Mississippi hopes to accomplish with BP funds lies ahead. The state will continue to receive chunks of the $1.3 billion for the next eleven years; so far, it’s only spent 10% of that total, with 44% of it obligated.
Notably, the state is working to better understand how to adapt to changes such as increasing rainfall and warmer water temperatures. At the University of Southern Mississippi for instance, researches are working on developing oyster genetics that are more resilient in the Gulf. The state is also developing a hydrological model of the Mississippi Sound, which will help better show impacts from outside influences like freshwater from the Bonnet Carré Spillway.
Moreover, the conservation community knows that it will take time to see the impacts of the initial projects.
“Natural systems don’t move immediately, they work at the rate that they do,” said Thomas Mohrman, Marine Program Manager for The Nature Conservancy in Mississippi. “You’re not going to get instant gratification. Ask me again in 10 years, I’ll definitely be able to tell you if we made all the right choices.”
This story was completed with support from the McGraw Fellowship for Business Journalism at The Craig Newmark Graduate School of Journalism at the City University of New York.