WASHINGTON — Members of the House of Representatives from the five Gulf Coast states — Mississippi, Louisiana, Alabama, Florida and Texas — announced Wednesday that they had agreed on a bill to direct at least 80 percent of the fines that BP is expected to pay for last year's oil spill to their states for economic and environmental restoration — a payday that may reach $20 million.
Gulf Coast House members introduced the Restore the Gulf Coast Act on Wednesday and told reporters at a news conference on the U.S. Capitol grounds that the coast needs the funds, which under the Clean Water Act would otherwise go to the federal government.
"We need to make sure we do everything possible to restore our ecosystem and our economies to the way they were before," said Rep. Steve Scalise, R-La. "It's only fair that the lion's share of that money stays on the Gulf Coast."
Scalise stressed that having all the affected states stand together in a "united front" with members from both parties will help move the legislation. There are several Democrats who are co-sponsoring the bill, including Rep. Bennie Thompson of Mississippi.
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A similar Senate bill already has cleared committee.
"Full recovery begins at the local level by meeting community needs," said Rep. Steven Palazzo, R-Miss. "We've worked together as a coastal delegation to build consensus to best address the full economic and ecological restoration of coastal communities."
The April 20, 2010, explosion of the Deepwater Horizon rig killed 11 men on a platform in the Gulf of Mexico and led to the loss of approximately 5 million barrels of crude oil before the well was capped in July 2010.
"More than a year after Deepwater Horizon turned our area upside down, the Gulf Coast is still recovering from the environmental, economic and emotional scars of this disaster," said Rep. Jo Bonner, R-Ala. "We are here because we love the Gulf Coast. It's who we are."
Florida, which did not suffer as much environmental damage as Louisiana, was interested in being able to use funds for economic impacts from the spill.
"The House bill provides the necessary flexibility to allow states to meet their needs in responding to the oil spill's catastrophic effects," said Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Fla.
And Rep. Pete Olson, R-Texas, added, "This common-sense measure simply ensures that the areas that were impacted the most by the Deepwater Horizon incident have an opportunity to fully recover from this tragedy."
The bill would equally divide 35 percent of the monies to the five states under a new Gulf Coast Restoration Trust Fund. Then, 60 percent of the funds would be distributed by the Gulf Coast Ecosystem Restoration Council, and 5 percent would go to a new Gulf science and fisheries program. The House bill does not include a small percentage to study oceans that the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee added last month when it approved the bill.
Scalise said that House leaders wanted Gulf lawmakers to come together before moving a bill.
Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus, a former Mississippi governor, proposed that a large percentage of the Environmental Protection Agency fines be directed to the coast in a report last year that he made for President Barack Obama.
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