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$140M in conservation work proposed for Gulf of Mexico; money comes from 2010 BP oil spill

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NEW ORLEANS — Ten watersheds around the rim of the Gulf of Mexico — from Florida to Texas — are being looked at as sites for $140 million in proposed conservation projects under a plan to restore the Gulf from BP's catastrophic 2010 oil spill.

On Thursday the Gulf Coast Restoration Council, a body set up by Congress to handle money derived from fines from the spill, released a list of the projects it wants to fund.

This money comes from a settlement with Transocean Deepwater Inc., a drilling company BP hired for its ill-fated well off the coast of Louisiana that blew out, causing the nation's largest offshore spill.

The projects range from plugging oil and gas wells along the coast in Texas to planting sea grasses in Tampa Bay to planning for a Mississippi River diversion.

The costliest projects are in Mississippi and Louisiana, states that were hit hard by BP's oil spill.

In Mississippi, the council is looking at spending $15.5 million to buy parcels of land along the coast to better conserve land and protect wildlife.

In Louisiana, the council is looking at spending $14 million to design a diversion of Mississippi River water into the Maurepas Swamp, an area of bald cypress and tupelo trees northwest of New Orleans. The idea is to reintroduce freshwater and sediment into the swamp.

For more information about the projects and the Gulf Coast Restoration Council, go to http://www.RestoretheGulf.gov.

Before money can be spent, the council will gather the public's opinions on the projects at meetings between Aug. 20 and Sept. 16. The first meeting will take place Aug. 20 in Corpus Christi, Texas, at Texas A&M University. The public can submit comments on the plans until Sept. 28.

Transocean's settlement over its role in the oil spill forced the company to pay about $800 million, and the restoration council says it expects to get $241 million, or 30 percent, of that amount.

Much more money is expected to come into the restoration fund from BP. In July, the five Gulf states, the federal government and the British oil giant agreed to settle civil claims arising from the 2010 spill.

Under the settlement, BP has agreed to pay a civil penalty of $5.5 billion under the Clean Water Act, payable over 15 years. Eighty percent of that amount would go toward restoration, the council said.

U.S. Interior Secretary Sally Jewell, in a statement, said this was a step toward "meaningful and lasting natural resource restoration for Gulf Coast communities."

Besides the Clean Water Act fines, criminal fines and money for natural resources damage also are going toward Gulf restoration.

In 2011, BP paid $1 billion to jump-start restoration projects and much of that money has been allocated and spent on projects, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Meanwhile, criminal fines from the spill are being funneled through the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, a nonprofit created by Congress in 1984. Plea agreements in cases against BP and Transocean are directing $2.5 billion into a fund overseen by the foundation. The NFWF has awarded about $395 million in restoration projects, the group says.

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