By Jeff Amy/The Associated Press
JACKSON — Gov. Phil Bryant has appointed more than 100 people from Mississippi’s coastal counties to draft a plan on how to spend money the state will get in legal damages as a result of the BP oil spill.
The five states bordering the Gulf of Mexico will get 80 percent of Clean Water Act fines from the 2010 BP spill, although the money won’t be split evenly. The total haul is estimated at $5 billion to $21 billion, depending on what parties agree to in a settlement or what a federal judge determines.
The RESTORE Act, passed by Congress, sets up the distribution, though Clean Water Act fines must be settled or ruled on by a court before they will be distributed. There’s likely to be more money through a federal environmental damage process and from Mississippi’s legal claims of economic harm.
The group, called Go Coast 2020, is divided into eight focus areas: ecological restoration, economic development, small business, seafood, tourism, education, infrastructure and workforce development. Each of those panels has 11 to 18 members. Some administration officials, such as Trudy Fisher, executive director of the Department of Environmental Quality, and Brent Christensen, executive director of the Mississippi Development Authority, will serve on multiple panels.
Bryant, at a Biloxi news conference Wednesday, said he wants coastal leaders to set spending priorities. It’s not clear whether the group will propose spending most money on environmental or economic projects. The administration failed to make anyone available Wednesday for a phone interview.
“Over the coming years, the RESTORE Act will route significant funding to our Mississippi Gulf Coast as BP pays its bill for the oil spill,” Bryant said in a statement. “While we don’t know exactly when the money will come, when the time comes we will be prepared to use these resources in the best interest of the Gulf Coast.
Of the 80 percent share that’s supposed to come to Gulf States, 35 percent of that amount is supposed to be divided equally among the five states. An 11-member Gulf Coast Ecosystem Restoration Council is supposed to designate how 60 percent of the money would be spent. That council is to consist of six federal representatives and one member from each of the five states. The last 5 percent of the 80 percent is supposed to be spent on research.
Taryn Tuss, a spokeswoman for the White House Council on Environmental Quality, said President Barack Obama is still working on putting together the group.
The Go Coast 2020 website says the group is supposed to submit a report to Bryant by January. That would be the same deadline that the law setting up the overall structure calls for the ecosystem council to turn in its plan.
“I’m determined to hold BP accountable,” Fisher told The Sun Herald. “I’m determined to make Mississippi whole and I’m determined to get the citizens of the Gulf Coast what’s due them.”