WASHINGTON -- In an unusual show of bipartisanship, nine Gulf Coast senators from both parties joined forces Thursday to introduce a bill that would require at least 80 percent of penalties from last year’s BP oil spill paid under the Clean Water Act to be directed to restoration projects in the five states: Florida, Mississippi, Louisiana, Alabama and Texas.
The show of unity, with Florida’s GOP Sen. Marco Rubio standing next to the state’s Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson, was especially noteworthy against the backdrop of the current divide between Democrats and Republicans over raising the debt limit.
“This was not easy. I can recall several difficult meetings in my office,” said Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., who heads the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, and who attended the press conference to underscore her support for the bill.
“Why are you looking at me?” joked Nelson.
The legislation establishes the Gulf Coast Restoration Trust Fund, which would come from 80 percent of the civil penalties paid by BP or any other entity found to be responsible in connection with the Deepwater Horizon spill. The fund could collect between $5 billion and $20 billion in estimated fines, said Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La., the bill’s lead sponsor.
“BP will have to pay a serious fine to the federal government,” Landrieu said. “We believe that at least 80 percent of that fine should go to the area where the injury occurred, to get the taxpayers off the hook and put the polluters on the hook for picking up the tab.”
The money will be used to support economic recovery, in part by establishing the Gulf Coast Ecosystem Restoration Council and a comprehensive plan for the Gulf Coast. It also establishes a long-term science and fisheries endowment backed by Nelson.
“When the Gulf of Mexico is subjected to a trauma, part of the responsibility of all of us is to help rehabilitate the Gulf of Mexico from that trauma,” Nelson said. ”That’s not only to the Gulf and all the critters in the Gulf and the future critters in the Gulf, but that’s also all the people and their environment along that Gulf.”
Under the bill, the five states would equally divide 35 percent of the monies. Sixty percent of the funds would be directed to the Gulf Coast Ecosystem Restoration Council, and 5 percent would go to a new Gulf science and fisheries program.
The remaining 20 percent would go to the U.S. Treasury.
Nine of the 10 U.S. senators from the five Gulf states -- two Democrats and seven Republicans -- are original co-sponsors of the bill, with only Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, not signing onto the bill.
“Just a week ago we had a hearing in Florida, and heard from real people in the real world, and hurting in a real way,” Rubio said. “I guess the message to them is hopefully we’ll get our job done quickly and we’ll have some cooperation on the other side of the building, in the House. And we’ll move on to tell people who were hurt by this a year ago, that help is on the way.”
Boxer promised quick committee action before the summer recess.
“We are one nation,” she said. “We all enjoy the beauty of these areas.”
Also showing a phalanx of support were six environmental groups, who issued a joint statement backing the bill.
“This Gulf state agreement paves the way for Congress to do what voters expect: hold the parties responsible for the Gulf oil disaster accountable for restoring the Gulf, because our nation’s economy depends on a healthy Gulf region,” said a statement issued by the Environmental Defense Fund, National Audubon Society, National Wildlife Federation, The Nature Conservancy, Ocean Conservancy and Oxfam America.
The idea to have the fines directed to the Gulf was advanced last year by Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus, a former Mississippi governor, in a report he made at the request of President Obama.
Earlier this year, the National Oil Spill Commission on the BP oil spill also recommended that at least 80 percent of the money collected in fines be sent to Gulf states for coastal and environmental restoration.
Erika Bolstad, Herald Washington correspondent, can be reached at email@example.com.