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House approves amendment to pay for Gulf Coast restoration

By Maria Recio, McClatchy Newspapers –

WASHINGTON — The House on Thursday approved an amendment by Gulf Coast lawmakers to dedicate 80 percent of the fines collected from the BP oil spill to a trust fund for coastal restoration in Mississippi, Florida, Alabama, Louisiana and Texas.

The amendment passed on voice vote. The entire bill, which is the energy portion of the Surface Transportation Act, was approved 237 to 187.

The Restore Act has been a top priority of Gulf Coast lawmakers. House members from Gulf states — including Reps. Steve Palazzo, R-Miss., Steve Scalise, R-La., and Pete Olson, R-Texas — were able to inject the issue into the debate on energy and oil and gas drilling.

“This is a huge first step that brings us much closer to bringing oil spill fines back to the Gulf Coast states,” Palazzo said. “This amendment sets up the Gulf Coast Restoration Fund for the five Gulf Coast states, and sets aside 80 percent of the Clean Water Act fines — before BP reaches a settlement.”

The language still must pass the Senate.

“Everyone from conservationists and sportsmen, to the fishing industry and the business community understands that this is not just the responsible decision, it is the right thing to do,” Palazzo said.

The House vote comes as parties that sued BP over the April 2010 Deepwater Horizon blowout and oil spill prepare for trial this month.

“We need to secure the fines from the Deepwater Horizon disaster for Gulf Coast recovery before a settlement is reached, and this amendment starts that process,” Scalise said.

The full Restore Act also would dictate the distribution of money among the five states. “It’s only fair that the lion’s share of BP Clean Water Act fines are dedicated to the Gulf Coast states still dealing with the impacts of the disaster for the purposes of ecosystem and economic recovery,” Scalise said.

Rep. Cedric Richmond, D-La., said, “We should not let this be a windfall for the American Treasury.”

The amendment would set up the Gulf Coast Restoration Fund for the five Gulf Coast states, and would set aside 80 percent of the Clean Water Act fines — an amount that could reach $20 billion. Without the amendment, the fines would be collected as general revenue.

On April 20, 2010, the BP-operated Deepwater Horizon oil rig exploded, killing 11 workers and spewing 4.9 million barrels of crude oil over 87 days.

A federal case with hundreds of consolidated lawsuits is scheduled to begin Feb. 27 before a federal judge in New Orleans. But Palazzo and other lawmakers expect BP to settle with the U.S. government, government and want to get the amendment in place as soon as possible to ensure that the Gulf Coast gets money for restoration.

The Environmental Protection Agency fines are separate from a $20 billion fund that BP set up to compensate victims of the oil spill.

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