published Sunday, May 6th, 2012

Two years after the BP spill

More than two years after the monstrous Gulf oil spill unleashed by BP's Deepwater Horizon drilling rig, a federal judge last week granted preliminary approval to a $7.8 billion partial settlement of claims. That settlement should resolve most private claims for property damages, economic losses and clean-up related injuries in areas nearest the spill, but what it does not cover is equally huge.

Excluded from the partial settlement are pending claims by the federal government and by the states of Louisiana and Alabama, which suffered the bulk of environmental damage and the clean-up costs. Claims by private plaintiffs in parts of Texas and Florida, as well as by some financial institutions, and by other plaintiffs who claim losses during the post-spill moratorium on drilling by the federal government, are also awaiting redress.

Given the scope of these pending legal challenges, and the still increasing body of knowledge about the environmental consequences of the nearly 205 million gallons of oil that damaged or killed sea life, fisheries, coral reefs and the industries that depend on the Gulf, more billions for compensation and restoration will be required from BP. To assure that the government's share is accurately proportional to the damages, and that fines and penalties assessed for the spill are appropriately allocated to restore the Gulf's natural resources, Congress will have to act.

Until a stall in the House last month, prospects looked good for passage -- finally -- of key legislation that would help restore the Gulf. The Senate had voted 76-22 to direct that 80 percent of any fines assessed under the Clean Water Act for economic and ecological damage in the Gulf related to the BP spill would go to the five Gulf states that suffered the most harm from the spill.

That bipartisan effort focused mainly on the RESTORE Act, an acronym for the Resources and Ecosystems, Sustainability, Tourism Opportunities and Revived Economy. Another Senate initiative produced a measure authorizing establishment of the National Endowment for the Oceans, Coasts and Great Lakes, referred to as the NEO, to provide a means for governmental agencies, environmental groups and others to apply for grants to restore damaged waterways.

Both measures, however, have been attached to the much larger national transportation act, which has bogged down over various partisan conflicts between political parties and the two chambers.

Taken together, these measures would make powerful and important tools to boost restoration and protection of the Gulf, and other significant waterways. But after more than two years since the BP's spill in the Gulf, it is troubling that Congress still has not been able to pass coherent, durable legislation to deal with this disaster.

Members of Congress apparently have forgotten both the dimensions of the disaster -- it was 19 times larger than the infamous Exxon Valdez 10.6 million gallon spill in pristine Alaskan waters -- and the sense of urgency it merits to help repair the broad economic and environmental damage that affected the five Gulf states.

Nor do they seem to be paying attention to recent evidence of coral formations smothered and suffocated by "black scum"; or the ongoing impact on fisheries and the food chain for aquatic life from toxins in oil residues; or the finding that the tar balls that litter the Gulf and its beaches may now contain potentially deadly bacteria (vibrio vulnificus) at up to 10 times the levels they had before the spill.

Congress didn't unleash the spill, but it is responsible for passing legislation to help repair the damage it caused, and to contain the future risk of similar spills. After two years, it's failure to pass such legislation is appalling.

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