What we heard from the Gulf Coast Ecosystem Restoration Council Meeting

This week the Gulf Coast Ecosystem Restoration Council met for the first time in Mobile, AL. This Council, established by the RESTORE Act, will oversee spending of the 80% of the Clean Water Act fines BP will pay for the 2010 oil disaster. Although the exact amount of those fines or when they might be coming is still unclear, the Gulf Coast Ecosystem Restoration Council is getting a head start on establishing priorities and getting public input.Aaron Viles and I were at this meeting to represent Gulf Restoration Network and our members in urging the new Council to prioritize effective, scientifically-backed ecosystem restoration projects, and to remind the Council that restoring the environment restores our economy.There was a lot of enthusiasm in the room and an impressive turn out of state and federal officials, as well as members of the public. Acting Commerce Secretary Rebecca Blank opened the meeting by highlighting the importance of the Gulf Coast and drawing attention to the legacy challenges that have existed in the region long before BP’s oil. The goal of the Gulf Coast Ecosystem Restoration Council, she said, should be the “long term health, prosperity, and environment of Gulf Coast communities.” Thankfully, even before GRN could speak on the subject, Blank also pointed out that economic development and coastal restoration are not “either-or”, but rather they are linked and must work together.This Council has some important deadlines to meet as they move to create a plan for implementation of restoration. Fortunately, they don’t have to start from scratch. Last year, the Gulf Coast Ecosystem Restoration Task Force released a strategy for restoring the Gulf of Mexico. This laid a strong foundation and framework for restoration which this Council intends to draw on. Environmental Protection Agency Secretary Lisa Jackson was on hand to review the goals set forth in the Task Force’s strategy. Jackson urged the Gulf Coast Ecosystem Restoration Council to move toward action and not to let the strategy become another plan that sits on the shelf. “We owe it to the citizen’s to implement their ideas,” said Jackson. Jackson then urged the Council to create a citizen’s advisory committee, and was met with a huge burst of applause.Before the public comment period of the meeting, Dr. Paul Sandifer, of NOAA, gave a presentation focused on the need for a robust scientific approach to restoration. This presentation showed how the 2.5% of the Clean Water Act fines dedicated to research and monitoring will be focused on building on existing activities in these fields and urged the need to leverage partnerships that will encourage coordinated strategies.During the public comment period, a diverse group of speakers from environmentalists to representatives from Indian tribes to trial lawyers, construction firms and commercial fishermen urged the panel to consider their interests as part of the plan.Casi Callaway, Executive Director of Mobile Baykeeper, took the mic to say “Every environmental project will have a significant impact on the economy. Let’s make sure that no projects negatively impact the environment.”Bethany Kraft, Deputy Director of the Gulf Restoration Program for Ocean Conservancy, said the goals identified by the Task Force “are the right goals and set the stage for creating a path forward for restoring our ecosystems that communities rely on. The task at hand now is to put some flesh on those bones.” Kraft also urged the Council to ensure inclusion of restoration of marine, blue water environments as a priority. “We know the devil is in the details, but at the end of the day, this is about creating a legacy for the Gulf of Mexico.”Gulf Island Conservancy President, Terese Collins, from Mississippi admonished the process to date for excluding the public from the decision-making table.Aaron Viles, GRN’s Deputy Director, pointed out the Gulf Coast Ecosystem Restoration Council’s goal is not to repair damage from the BP disaster, but to go above and beyond to restore historical degradation of the Gulf’s ecosystem. “When we look at these pots of money, let’s think about what’s best to meet the needs of the ecosystem,” Viles said. He urged the Council to consider “what’s going to be most effective, what’s going to build the most land, in the case of Louisiana, and what’s going to work to withstand the threats to this ecosystem of sea level rise.”It is critical that we all take the opportunity to weigh in with our ideas about how we should, and shouldn’t restore the Gulf. This is an amazing opportunity to finally see some real money dedicated to this effort. We cannot squander it by blowing the money on pork projects that do nothing to restore and protect this unique ecosystem or, more frighteningly, cause additional harm.More public meetings will be held in each of the five Gulf States in late January and early February. The Gulf Coast Ecosystem Restoration Council will release a draft plan in the Spring of 2013, which will be open to public comment. The Comprehensive Plan will be release in July 2013.Michelle Erenberg is the coordinator of Gulf Future, a gulf-wide collaborative effort to hold BP accountable. For more information visit www.gulffuture.orgSign up to receive email updates on stories like this one.CLICK HERE

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