WASHINGTON — The House approved an amendment Thursday pushed by Gulf State lawmakers to dedicate 80 percent of the fines collected from the BP oil spill to a trust fund for coastal restoration of Mississippi, Florida, Alabama, Louisiana and Texas.
The agreement to the amendment was by voice vote; the entire bill, which is the energy portion of the Surface Transportation Act, also was approved Thursday evening, 237 to 187.
The Restore Act has been a top priority of Gulf State lawmakers, especially as the BP trial is due to start at the end of the month, and House Gulf members were able to inject the issue into the debate over energy and oil and gas drilling. Reps. Steve Palazzo, R-Miss., Steve Scalise, R-La., and Pete Olson, R-Texas, were among those involved in pushing the bill.
"This is a huge first step that brings us much closer to bringing oil spill fines back to the Gulf Coast states," said Palazzo. "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."
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The language still must go through the Senate for a vote.
"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 in New Orleans later 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 the monies 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 judge in New Orleans. But Palazzo and other lawmakers anticipate a BP settlement with the U.S. government and want to get the amendment in place as soon as possible to ensure funds are aimed at the Gulf Coast.
The EPA fines are separate from a $20 billion fund BP set up to compensate victims.
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