Using Gulf Disaster Funds for Florida Boat Ramp Project Sets a Sorry Precedent
In the midst of our Earth Day celebrations comes an example of just how difficult it can be for humanity to self sacrifice, especially when money is involved. Deepwater Horizon recovery money, collected pursuant to the Oil Pollution Act, and intended for remediation of harms to natural resources, will be used to build new and repaired boat ramps in Florida.
In April 2010, the Deepwater Horizon oil disaster badly damaged the Gulf of Mexico. The environmental impacts are still being felt, such as unprecedented numbers of dolphin strandings or snapper with lesions or oil coating deepwater reefs on the Gulf floor. To help offset those impacts, BP and the Oil Pollution Act Trustees (including representatives from the affected Gulf states, NOAA and the Department of the Interior) entered into an unprecedented agreement whereby BP set aside one billion dollars to fund early restoration projects. The agreement also committed to a public review process, and many groups weighed in, suggesting options for spending the money. Last week, with the release of the Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill Phase I Early Restoration Plan and Environmental Assessment, the public got a preview of how the Oil Pollution Act is being implemented. The initial plan includes funding for two oyster projects, two marsh projects, a nearshore artificial reef project, two dune projects, and yes, really, boat ramps in Florida.
Reasonable minds can differ over how the Oil Pollution Act funds should be allocated. The Marine Fisheries Advisory Committee, for example, emphasized the need to focus on ecosystems, and especially the regional estuaries, which function as the kidneys for the entire Gulf of Mexico. Projects to benefit oysters, marshes, reefs and dunes reflect a similar kind of thinking. But the Florida Boat Ramp Enhancement and Construction Project, as it is called, is something altogether different. At an expense of $5,067,255, this project includes four boat ramp facilities for human use. It defies the spirit of the Oil Pollution Act, if not worse.
The purpose of the Oil Pollution Act was to ensure that the party responsible for an oil spill “is liable for the removal costs and damages.” Sec. 1002(a). Funds paid by the responsible party are expected to pay for damages, in one of six categories, including: (1) damages to natural resources; (2) damages for injury to real or personal property; (3) loss of subsistence use of natural resources; (4) damages to revenues (including taxes, royalties compensate for lost recreational opportunities for the public, rents, fees, or net profit shares); (5) damages to profits and earning capacity; (6) damages for net costs of providing increased or additional public services (such fire, safety, or health services). In addition, the definitions section of the Oil Pollution Act, Sec. 1001(20), further says that ‘‘natural resources’’ includes land, fish, wildlife, biota, air, water, ground water, drinking water supplies, and other such resources belonging to, managed by, held in trust by, appertaining to, or otherwise controlled by the United States. Upon a cursory reading, none of this seems to justify a sparkling new boat ramp (or even a repaired ramp) in Escambia County.
The catch, however, can be found in Sec. 1002(b)(2)(A), which says that “Damages for injury to, destruction of, loss of, or loss of use of, natural resources, including the reasonable costs of assessing the damage… shall be recoverable by a United States trustee…”
The Trustees report clearly intends to rely on that provision, explaining that the seven proposed projects were intended to “address injuries in four of the five impacted states, on the coast and offshore, to mammals and marine organisms, and/or compensate for lost recreational opportunities for the public.” In other words, the statutory reference to “the loss of use of natural resources” has now been interpreted to mean that the temporary loss of recreational boating created liability, and justifies a new boat ramp – for people – as a remedy.
But the detailed explanation of the boat ramp project makes the analysis even harder to swallow. “This project will help address the reduced quality and quantity of recreational activities (e.g., boating and fishing) in Florida attributable to the Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill and response activities,” says the Phase I Early Restoration Plan documentation. But if the quantity and quality of recreation has declined, because the Deepwater Horizon disaster has marred its recreational beauty, then the solution cannot be more recreational access. The logic is reminiscent of a famous Yogi Berra quote: nobody goes there anymore, because it's too crowded.
Perhaps, if an Escambia County boat ramp had been utterly destroyed by the oil spill, reconstruction would be appropriate. Compensating recreational boating businesses might also seem appropriate. Even the restoration of an oil-covered party-boat island that weekend warriors once recreated upon would be within the realm of reason. Building a new boat ramp, however –- which in turn will result in more boats (and maybe more decline in quality of local natural resources) –- is not a reasonable way to compensate for the natural resources damages already done by the Deepwater Horizon disaster.
If the residents of the Florida panhandle needed a new boat ramp, then Escambia County and the State of Florida could have paid for it. Indeed, the Boat Ramp might even be a good idea, and the project might create an economic boost deserving of stimulus money. But the use of Oil Pollution Act funds for this purpose sets a dangerous new precedent. What's next: a few more waterfront buildings? After all, Deepwater Horizon temporarily destroyed our recreational views.
P.S. Happy Earth Day.
The Florida Boat Ramp Enhancement and Construction Project includes five parts: (1) repairing an existing boat ramp in Pensacola Bay (Navy Point Park Public Boat Ramp N30-22.8’/W087-16.9’) (2) constructing a new boat ramp facility in Pensacola Bay (Mahogany Mill Public Boat Ramp N30-23.9’/W087-14.9’); (3) repairing and modifying an existing boat ramp in Perdido Bay (Galvez Landing Public Boat Ramp N30-18.8’/W087-26.5’) (4) constructing a new boat ramp facility in Perdido Bay (Perdido Public Boat Ramp N30-1.4’/W087-26.7’), and (5) visitor information kiosks to provide environmental education to boaters regarding water quality and sustainable practices for utilization of marine, estuarine and coastal resources in Florida. (Image from escambia county online)
RELATED LINKS: Dollar and Sins: The Oil Spill Penance Race Begins, by Jeremy Morrison at Independent News