NEW ORLEANS — Restoring the oil-stained Gulf of Mexico coastline is critical to the Obama administration's fight against climate change, U.S. Interior Secretary Sally Jewell said Friday.
Jewell was at a national park outside New Orleans to announce the latest round of projects to help the Gulf Coast recover from the 2010 BP oil spill. Money for 44 projects is coming from a $1 billion fund BP created after oil fouled 1,110 miles of beaches and marsh along Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and Florida.
"The Gulf of Mexico watershed is a large and diverse landscape that is critical to our nation's culture, economy and environment," Jewell said in prepared remarks. "Today's announcement is an important step as we work to not only restore the natural resources that were impacted by the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, but to also build back the resiliency of the region."
If all 44 projects are approved, about $300 million would remain in the fund set up as a down payment to help the Gulf.
Some of the projects, though, are being criticized by environmentalists as inappropriate uses of money that's mean to aid the environment and restore public access lost during the oil spill.
Cynthia Sarthou, executive director of the Gulf Restoration Network, said the pot of money that includes these grants is supposed to restore environments or lost access to the coast, but shouldn't be used for tourism, unlike other pots of BP money.
Her group's biggest criticism is of the $85 million that Alabama wants to spend at its Gulf State Park in Gulf Shores. Much of that money would go to build a new hotel that would be leased out to a private operator. Sarthou said the hotel could damage habitat of an endangered beach mouse species.
"They are essentially building a tourist attraction," Sarthou said of the plan.
Alabama officials have been considering various hotel plans since before 2004's Hurricane Ivan destroyed a beachfront lodge at the park, in hopes of luring convention business that now gravitates to Florida.
Sarthou is also critical of some of Mississippi's plans, including a proposal to spend $10.4 million on the Infinity Science Center along Interstate 10 near Pearlington. She says the plan to install Gulf-related exhibits and a trail to the Pearl River isn't appropriate.
Of the new projects, 16 have been added in Florida since a preliminary announcement last spring, giving Florida more than $105 million from the fund. Based on a list provided by the Interior Department, most of the new Florida projects appear to be piers, boat ramps, boardwalks and other recreational facilities.
Louisiana, which had the widest expanse of oiled coast, is the only state that does not have tourism or recreation projects in the latest batch of projects. Its $340 million includes $318.4 million to restore four barrier islands and $22 million for fish hatcheries.
Meetings will be held across the coast to get public comment on the 44 proposals.
Jewell took an aerial tour of the Gulf on Thursday and visited the Breton and Big Branch national wildlife refuges. Big Branch is on the north shore of Lake Pontchartrain and was not affected by the spill. Booms were quickly set around the islands at Breton, which encompasses areas at the mouth of the Mississippi River and a chain of barrier islands in Chandeleur Sound, and protected it from the worst of the spill, Jewell said.
"When Hurricane Katrina came along, it wiped out about 70 percent of the whole refuge, and yet it's critical habitat" for birds such as brown pelicans, terns and skimmers, Jewell said. "Close to 30 percent of all the brown pelican habitat in the northern Gulf is in this very small island" called North Breton Island, she said.
About $72 million of the BP money would go for restoration there, she said.
Although it's too far from shore to protect the coast from rising tides, the dune restoration there is typical of work that can do so, Jewell said.
Jeff Amy reported from Jackson, Mississippi