Deepwater Horizon Trustees release environmental plans for $627 million in restoration projects

By Whit Remer and Estelle Robichaux, Environmental Defense Fund

On December 6, the U.S. Department of Interior, on behalf of the Deepwater Horizon Natural Resource Damage (NRDA) Trustees, released a Draft Programmatic Environmental Impact Statement (PEIS) for approximately $627 million of early restoration projects across the Gulf Coast. While the projects were initially proposed in May, over the past six months, the Trustees have been preparing a PEIS to evaluate the broad impacts of the projects. The PEIS includes $318 million for barrier island restoration projects and $22 million for marine fisheries research and science in Louisiana.

A NOAA veterinarian prepares to clean an oiled Kemp's Ridley turtle. As part of the NRDA process, NOAA assesses injuries to marine life.

A NOAA veterinarian prepares to clean an oiled Kemp’s Ridley turtle. As part of the NRDA process, NOAA assesses injuries to marine life.

The Natural Resource Damage Assessment is the scientific and legal process to assess and quantify injuries to natural resources and services following oil spills. Trustees from the five Gulf states and four federal agencies are conducting the process for the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. While the full NRDA for the spill is ongoing, the Trustees and BP reached an agreement in April 2011 to begin an early restoration program to restore resources and services immediately and acutely harmed by the oil spill.

The early restoration process is guided by a contract signed by the Trustees and BP known as the Early Framework Agreement, whereby BP committed to provide up to $1 billion in early restoration funds. Two phases of funding were announced prior to the latest $627 million announcement. In Phase I, Louisiana received funds for the Lake Hermitage Marsh Creation Project and for oyster hatcheries in Plaquemines and Terrebonne Parishes.  Phase II contained $9 million in sea turtle and bird habitat restoration projects in Alabama, Mississippi and Florida.

Phase III contains the largest and most diverse suite of projects across the Gulf. In Louisiana, four barrier islands will be restored through $318 million in funds proposed under the Louisiana Outer Coast Restoration project set.” Once the PEIS is complete for Phase III, the Trustees will begin work to restore beach, dune and back barrier marsh on Caillou Lake Headlands (also known as Whiskey Island), Chenier Ronquille, Shell Island (West Lobes and portions of East Lobe) and the North Breton Island. These islands provide important habitat for brown pelicans, terns, skimmers and gulls. Barrier islands also have the potential to buffer storm surge and wave action and thus serve as a first line of defense for coastal communities and infrastructure.

An oiled shoreline in Barataria Bay, Louisiana.

An oiled shoreline in Barataria Bay, Louisiana.

Restoring these islands will require an enormous amount of sediment. Almost 7,500 tons of sand, silt and clay will be pumped from various locations offshore or in the Mississippi River to provide the material for these restoration projects. In all, these projects will restore nearly 2,500 acres of barrier island habitat. Before sediment pumping can begin, containment dikes need to be constructed. Containment dikes give new sediment time to settle and compact, allowing sediment-stabilizing vegetation to grow. These structures are very important because they lessen the impact of ocean currents and waves that lead to the erosion of these newly established island sediments. The containment dikes will generally degrade over time as the island becomes more stable and more vegetation grows.

After the islands have been restored, sand fencing will be installed, to help trap and retain wind-blown sediments and help foster the development of sand dunes, and native vegetation will be planted. Sand dunes are important to the long-term maintenance of barrier islands because they serve as a reservoir of sand from which a beach can replenish itself after a storm. Dunes can also lessen wave energy by breaking waves before they reach shore and, along with “back-barrier marsh,” (the salt marsh on the backside of a barrier island) have the potential to buffer storm surge by absorbing and retaining water.

These barrier island restoration projects were selected for NRDA early restoration because many of them were the first landmasses to be oiled by the Deepwater Horizon spill. But it is important to have these projects constructed quickly, so that Louisiana’s communities can have their first line of defense intact.

To make sure this happens, we encourage you to urge the NRDA Trustee Council by February 4, 2014, either in writing online or at one of the public meetings, to advance these critical Louisiana restoration projects as expeditiously as possible.