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Senate approves bill to send BP fines to Gulf Coast restoration

By Maria Recio, McClatchy Newspapers –

WASHINGTON — The U.S. Senate overwhelmingly voted Thursday in favor of returning 80 percent of the fines to be collected from BP for the 2010 Gulf Coast oil spill to the five states whose waters, wildlife and ecosystems were damaged by the flow of 5 million barrels of oil: Mississippi, Florida, Louisiana, Alabama and Texas.

The Senate action follows a recent House vote of a downsized version of the bill as lawmakers race to put the mechanism in place before the U.S. Department of Justice reaches a settlement with BP — without the provision that the estimated $5 billion to $20 billion in federal fines would revert to the U.S. Treasury.

The lopsided 76 to 22 Senate vote was the result of a strong bipartisan effort led by Senate Democrats Bill Nelson of Florida and Mary Landrieu of Louisiana as well as Mississippi Republicans Thad Cochran and Roger Wicker. The only one of the 10 Gulf state senators to vote against the bill was Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., who felt the bill deviated from the initial bill he had supported.

“This is a significant legislative step to ensure that reparations are made to Mississippi and other states harmed environmentally and economically by the oil spill,” Cochran said in a statement. “The margin of this vote is a clear indication that there is broad support for giving Gulf Coast states resources to address the long-term consequences of the oil spill tragedy.”

The April 20, 2010, explosion of the Deepwater Horizon oil rig killed 11 people.

In a statement, Wicker said, “Passage of the RESTORE Act today is an achievement for the Gulf Coast and Mississippians still struggling to recover from the Deepwater Horizon spill.”

The amendment is now part of a two-year highway bill that the Senate is still voting on, with a final vote on passage expected Tuesday. “Almost two years ago, the Gulf Coast was devastated by the worst environmental accident in the nation’s history,” Landrieu said in a statement. “And there was a question as to where the fines that BP is required to pay should go, and the Senate said unequivocally by 76 votes, that the fines should go to the Gulf Coast, the place where the injury occurred and where the accident occurred.”

Rubio, however, said in a statement, “Today’s RESTORE Act is far different than the one I proudly supported last July. What started as a genuine bipartisan effort to dedicate as much BP fine money as possible towards Gulf Coast restoration has now turned into a raw deal that increases taxes, creates a new environmental bureaucracy, and could steer money to places like the Great Lakes and West coast that had nothing to with the oil spill.”

Under the bill, the five states would equally divide 35 percent of the fines. Sixty percent of the funds would be directed to the Gulf Coast Ecosystem Restoration Council, and 5 percent would go to a new Gulf science and fisheries program.

RESTORE stands for The Resources and Ecosystems Sustainability, Tourist Opportunity, and Revived Economies of the Gulf States Act.

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