Nearly two years ago, the BP Deepwater Horizon oil disaster devastated the Gulf of Mexico, affecting the region's economy, wildlife and communities. But a critical piece of legislation moving through Congress could help make it right in the Gulf by providing the funding needed to restore the region's valuable natural resources and ensure a healthy, resilient ocean.
The RESTORE Act will direct 80 percent of Clean Water Act fines paid by BP and other responsible parties toward the places in the Gulf where it's needed most. This funding will enable the implementation of a comprehensive ecosystem restoration plan and ensure the future health of the birds, dolphins, sea turtles, fish and, of course, the local communities that greatly depend on our ocean.
"The RESTORE Act is simply about fairness for the Gulf," says Chris Dorsett, director of Ocean Conservancy's Fish Conservation and Gulf Restoration program. "We are only at the end of the beginning of restoration. We don't know the full impact of the BP oil disaster yet. What we do know is troubling for the Gulf, and it’s clear that these resources are urgently needed."
This week, the Senate passed the RESTORE Act as an amendment to the Transportation bill with overwhelming bipartisan support — a 76-22 vote. Now, the Senate's Transportation bill, with the RESTORE Act included, is in the hands of Congress for a crucial vote that could allow it to be signed into law.
For many residents of the Gulf, including Ocean Conservancy's own experts and advocates living in the region, the RESTORE Act's successful movement through the Senate offers hope for a chance to restore an ecosystem that sustains their lives and livelihoods.
"The RESTORE Act is so much more than a piece of legislation," says Bethany Kraft, deputy director of Ocean Conservancy's Gulf Restoration program. "It is a personal victory for the people of the Gulf Coast and a first step toward creating a brighter future."
For Kraft, who has deep roots in the Gulf of Mexico, it's not enough to restore the region back to where it was on April 19, 2010, just before the BP oil disaster. "We need to address the long-term causes of degradation that have made us more susceptible to disasters over the years, and this money will allow us to do that."
If passed, the RESTORE Act would establish an endowment to support a long-term research and monitoring program in the Gulf, a top Ocean Conservancy priority. By continuing to take the pulse of the Gulf over time, we'll be able to better understand changes in the ecosystem and develop management solutions that keep the environment, fisheries and economy healthy.
But it's not just the Gulf region that will benefit from the RESTORE Act. The amendment also advances efforts to protect the ocean, coasts and valuable inland habitat across the country. Funding was included for the Land and Water Conservation Fund as well as the National Endowment for the Ocean, which uses a portion of the interest from BP's fines to fund work to promote the environmental and economic prosperity of all of America's coastal waters and Great Lakes.
"As a resident of the Gulf region, I am proud that our tragedy can be turned into something good for all of America's coasts," Kraft says. "The oil spill emphasized the importance of protecting the resources we still have. The stronger we can make our coasts and the more resilient our communities become, the more equipped we'll be to respond to natural and technological disasters and protect the Gulf of Mexico's natural resources, citizens and economy for generations to come."
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