Gulf states reach $18.7B settlement with BP

Published 5:04 pm Thursday, July 2, 2015

County ready to move forward with oil spill recovery

The Jefferson County Commissioners’ Court is cautiously celebrating what one commissioner called “the beginning of the end” of a five-year struggle between energy giant BP and five Gulf Coast states.

Fred Jackson, assistant to Jefferson County Judge Jeff Branick, said if a federal judge gives a record $18.7 billion settlement — agreed upon Thursday morning by BP and the states devastated by the company’s 134 million gallon oil spill in 2010 — the final OK, Jefferson County could finally realize the completion of its McFaddin Beach dune restoration project.

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“This is long overdue,” Michael “Shane” Sinegal, Jefferson County Commissioner for Precinct 3, said Thursday. “Our litigation team and Jefferson County Judge Jeff Branick have been going back and forth to Austin, pleading on our behalf for this recovery money, for years.

“This oil spill was an absolute devastation to our fishing and shrimping industries, and our tourism market. The Gulf Coast was completely shut down. I’m more inclined to worry about our ecology, restoring the McFaddin marshes and certainly protecting them with our dune restoration project.

“But until we get the breakdown of the settlement, we just don’t know how much of this money we’ll actually get. I’d like to get the entire $18.7 billion to be honest with you, but we’re competing for dollars with four other states — and we’re competing for dollars within our own state.”

The Deepwater Horizon oil rig explosion in April 2010 killed 11 people on board and spread miles of black oil across the Gulf Coast before the underwater well was capped a few months later. The 134 million gallons released into the Gulf made history as the largest offshore oil spill in American history.

The Associated Press reported Thursday the settlement has potential to resolve the states’ natural resources damage claims and to settle economic claims involving state and local governments in Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and Florida.

“If approved by the court, this settlement would be the largest settlement with a single entity in American history; it would help repair the damage done to the Gulf economy, fisheries, wetlands and wildlife; and it would bring lasting benefits to the Gulf region for generations to come,” U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch said in a statement.

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott told the AP the state would receive more than $788 million in damages and penalties, with $638 million of that money slated for restoration projects. The remaining $150 million would compensate the state for economic damages.

“After years, I’m proud to announce that Texas, along with other Gulf States, has reached an agreement in principle with BP to resolve all the states’ claims,” Abbott said in a press release Thursday. “This settlement will allow Texas to reinvest in the Gulf community and reinvigorate the economic and environmental health of the region.”

The AP said in its lawsuit against BP, “Texas had argued the oil spill cost the state a variety of tax revenues, including sales taxes, hotel occupancy taxes and mixed beverage taxes. The suit also claimed the spill reduced revenues at three state parks and injured, destroyed or contaminated coastal habitats and a variety of wildlife.”

Jackson said the County expects receiving any of the potential funds will be a long waiting game.

“Even if the judge signed off on it today, it’s going to take many months for any of this money to trickle down to us,” he said. “There’s a number of players in this. We’re in the mix, but we don’t know how this is going to be portioned out through the state, through the various departments.

“It’s way too early to tell how much money we could receive. All of these things have to be ferreted out through the final settlement agreement. And BP will actually have a large say in which projects are approved. But the Commissioners’ Court has always said restoring our McFaddin dunes is priority No. 1, with the siphons for the Intracoastal Waterway coming in a close second.”

Sinegal said completing the county’s dune restoration project will be the first step toward a serious revival of Texas 87.

“Completing these dunes is going to be paramount to getting Texas 87 back on track,” Sinegal said. “Judge Branick missed Commissioners’ Court Monday because he was showing U.S. Parks and Wildlife representatives the goals for our coastline. He actually took them to the coast and showed them what we’re looking to do — with our dunes, with our marshland, with Texas 87.

“I know Judge Branick is passionate about this. I’m passionate about this, and before I leave office I’d like to see Texas 87 restored. I think it’s vital to Port Arthur. This settlement money, depending on how much we get, could be the extra push that puts us on the level we want to be at. Texas 87 and that shoreline is our link to Texas and the nation.”

The potential settlement agreement grants Texas the lowest amount in damages. Louisiana would receive the most, $6.8 billion, followed by Florida with $3.25 billion, Alabama with $2.3 billion and Mississippi with $2.2 billion.

The Gulf Restoration Network sent a statement Thursday urging the states to devote most of the funds received to restoring the Gulf’s environment and impacted communities.

“The funds from this settlement provide a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to repair the Gulf in the wake of the BP disaster and make our coasts and communities stronger and more resilient for future generations,” Cynthia Sarthou, Gulf Restoration Network executive director, said. “We must not squander this opportunity.

The entire $18.7 billion agreement currently assigns:

• $8.1 billion for natural resource damages, including $1 billion already paid in early restoration projects
• $5.5 billion for Clean Water Act civil penalties, subject to the RESTORE Act
• $4.9 billion for state economic losses
• $232 million to address any unknown natural resource damages

“As these funds make their way to the Gulf Coast, it is important for citizens across the nation to hold our leaders accountable to ensure meaningful restoration for our communities and environment come first,” Jordan Macha, Gulf Restoration Network Gulf policy analyst, said.

The Jefferson County Commissioners’ Court will discuss the McFaddin National Wildlife Refuge Dune Restoration project further at its next meeting, scheduled for 1:30 p.m. Monday in the fourth floor of the Jefferson County Courthouse, 1149 Pearl St. in Beaumont.

Twitter: @crhenderson90