Plan announced to restore Gulf of Mexico after BP oil spill

In this April 21, 2010, photo taken in the Gulf of Mexico more than 50 miles southeast of Venice on Louisiana's tip, the Deepwater Horizon oil rig is seen burning. A BP scientist identified a previously unreported deposit of flammable gas that could have played a role in the Gulf of Mexico oil spill, but the oil giant failed to divulge the finding to government investigators for as long as a year, according to interviews and documents obtained by The Associated Press. (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert, File)

In this April 21, 2010, photo taken in the Gulf of Mexico more than 50 miles southeast of Venice on Louisiana's tip, the Deepwater Horizon oil rig is seen burning. A BP scientist identified a previously unreported deposit of flammable gas that could have played a role in the Gulf of Mexico oil spill, but the oil giant failed to divulge the finding to government investigators for as long as a year, according to interviews and documents obtained by The Associated Press. (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert, File)

HOUSTON — EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson on Monday announced a vast, collaborative plan developed by a federal task force to restore the Gulf of Mexico following the BP oil spill disaster.

The plan will be kick started by a $50 million infusion from the U.S. Department of Agriculture to restore the seven U.S. waterway deltas crucial to the Gulf's health. Jackson outlined in broad strokes the four-part plan that will take years -- and hundreds of millions of federal and private dollars -- to implement. It was developed by the Obama administration's Gulf Coast Ecosystem Restoration Task Force made up of federal officials and leaders from five Gulf Coast states.

"This is the culmination of long hours and hard work and unprecedented collaboration and compromise born of an urgent need to address the challenges that have faced this region for years," Jackson said.

Monday also marked the start of a four-day meeting of authorities on Gulf issues at the second annual State of the Gulf of Mexico Summit in Houston, hosted by the Harte Research Institute for Gulf of Mexico Studies at Texas A and M University-Corpus Christi.

Scientists, policy makers and environmental stewards will discuss the Gulf habitats most affected by the disaster and review scientific data gathered since the 2010 Deepwater Horizon explosion and oil spill that killed 11 people and spilled almost 5 million barrels of oil into the waters off the Louisiana coast.

The task force plan has four major goals, including restoring habitat and water quality, replenishing living resources and enhancing community resilience. It outlines several action plans under each goal.

Famed oceanographer and longtime Gulf conservationist Sylvia Earle said the investment in so much time and money is wasted if the end result does not lead to sound policies based on better science, not the current models.

Earle, chairwoman of the Harte Research Institute's advisory board, said creating zones of permanent fishing and drilling moratoriums would allow scientists an opportunity to gather baseline data for the benefit of future generations of policy and decision makers.

"I commend what the task force is doing, but there's a big gap from where the focus is to where it needs to be," she said. "We need permanent protections. We carve up the Gulf to exploit it, why not carve out areas dedicated to protection and recovery?"

The plan will be shepherded by federal administrators and representatives from the five Gulf Coast states, including EPA Region VI Administrator Al Armendariz.

"We will make sure all projects receive the proper scientific support and that we coordinate across all five states to make sure we have a clear strategy to solve the problems the task force identifies," Armendariz said.

The $50 million announced Monday will be matched by a combination of private, state and nonprofit funding, Department of Agriculture Undersecretary Harris Sherman said.

The plan represents a blueprint mapped by people and businesses along the Gulf Coast who depend on it for their livelihood, said Nancy Sutley, chairwoman of the White House Council on Environmental Quality.

"The president made it clear he wanted this policy to come from the Gulf, not from Washington," he said. "It's only a beginning but it is a platform."

She said President Barack Obama remains committed to the task force's work as critical to protecting the home of the nation's largest commercial fisheries and one of the world's largest oil fields.

"Pollution, over fishing, climate change -- all threaten ocean health," she said. "Yet, we rely more and more on the ocean for energy, food and recreation.

"She said the Deepwater Horizon spill was a wake-up call for officials following decades of decline in Gulf ecosystems.

The accident, one of the worst in history, ground to a halt Gulf oil production and cast an oily cloud over the future of Gulf energy development as government officials and environmental groups called for harsh penalties against BP, the company ultimately responsible for the spill.

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