Congressional bills jockey for position over potential BP oil spill fines


Posted on June 7, 2011 at 6:24 PM

Updated Tuesday, Jun 7 at 6:24 PM

Maya Rodriguez / Eyewitness News

NEW ORLEANS -- When the "Women of the Storm" stormed Capitol Hill this spring, they presented a united front calling for the restoration of the Gulf Coast using oil spill related fines collected from BP.

"For Louisiana, we're losing that football field every 38 minutes, so it's really a priority for us," said Anne Milling, founder of "Women of the Storm."

Yet, while the women presented a united front, Gulf Coast members of Congress remain anything but united.

"Surprisingly, many bills have been filed since March," Milling said. "So, you have not gotten the Gulf Coast region to come together as a team or a family, and that's part of the problem today."

The first bills came from Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-L and Rep. Steve Scalise. In essence, both call for 80 percent of the BP fines, collected under the Clean Water Act, to be put towards coastal restoration. The total amount: potentially between $5 billion to $20 billion.

"Louisiana had the largest environmental impact from the BP oil spill, so it makes sense that that money should come back here and help address the problems that the spill created," said Dr. John Lopez, with the Lake Pontchartrain Basin Foundation.

However, other members of Congress have now filed bills, each with slightly different concerns, including one from Alabama Rep. Jo Bonner.

"Each of the five Gulf states was affected differently by last year's oil spill," Bonner, R-Ala., said in a statement sent to Eyewitness News. "This legislation ensures Alabama and the other gulf states have access to funds for economic development, tourism promotion and ecosystem restoration as meets their specific needs."

Scalise said Tuesday he has been meeting with colleagues -- all part of a recently-formed Gulf Coast Caucus -- to see if a compromise bill can be reached in the House.

"We wanted to make sure we could bring all of the states together, so there's not a food fight over the money, so to speak," Scalise said. "The first thing we have to do is set aside the money before it comes in. If the federal government -- through the Justice Department, BP -- agree to an amount tomorrow, or in five years, once they agree and it's set aside, we lose the ability to go and utilize that money."

If that happens, billions in oil spill fines would end up in the federal treasury, with no specified purpose. To try and ensure it is set aside for coastal restoration, the "Women of the Storm" are now mobilizing 75,000 supporters. They want them to call and email their legislators and push for a final bill by the end of the year.

Scalise said he hopes a compromise bill can be worked out within the next few months.