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Congress passes law to restore Gulf Coast communities, ecosystems and economy

By Ben Grossman-Cohen

WASHINGTON, DC -- International humanitarian and relief organization Oxfam America commends the US Congress for ensuring fines from the nation’s largest offshore oil disaster will be directed towards restoring critical ecosystems and creating new jobs in the impacted communities along the Gulf Coast.

Included as part of the surface transportation reauthorization bill passed by the House and Senate, the historic measure will send civil fines – amounting to as much as $20 billion –under the Clean Water Act from the 2010 BP oil spill to the Gulf Coast states for restoring vulnerable communities, ecosystems and local economies.

“The US Congress has created an opportunity for the largest investment in a generation in restoring a nationally important ecosystem, and it’s a huge boost for these communities,” said Raymond C. Offenheiser, president of Oxfam America. “After decades of environmental degradation, and the one-two punch of Hurricane Katrina and the Deepwater Horizon disaster, this legislation offers a chance to reduce the risks of some of our most vulnerable coastal communities and create new economic opportunities for low income and disadvantaged working families restoring the coast.”

The language included in the surface transportation bill was based on the RESTORE the Gulf Coast States Act, a bipartisan bill in the House and Senate to address the region’s economic and ecological challenges. New research from Mather Economics indicates the bill will create as many as 74,000 jobs, including on coastal restoration and protection projects. Oxfam America has been working with community organizations to urge Congress to ensure the bill helps provide jobs and training opportunities in these projects, so struggling families can find good jobs restoring the coast.

“Projects that restore coastal wetlands, barrier islands and oyster reefs can create good jobs -- from welders to boat captains to heavy equipment operators -- while revitalizing our fisheries for future generations,” continued Offenheiser. “We have a chance to put in place policies that support the training, hiring and economic mobility of residents, providing a new pathway out of poverty for struggling fishers and low income workers along the coast, helping to build more resilient coastal communities.”

“We applaud Senators Landrieu, Shelby and Nelson and Representatives Scalise, Palazzo, Bonner, and Richmond for spearheading this effort,” said Offenheiser. “We also thank Senate and House leadership for ensuring the measure emerged from the conference process, and Senate Environment and Public Works Chair Senator Barbara Boxer for her early leadership."

States in the Gulf Coast region have struggled for years with high poverty and low economic mobility, which impair their ability to cope with disasters. Alabama, Louisiana, Mississippi and Texas regularly rank in the top ten with the worst poverty rates and all five rank among the worst in economic mobility. Poverty is one of the most important factors in determining social vulnerability -- the ability of communities to prepare for, respond to, and recover from disasters. Oxfam America works with local organizations in Mississippi and Louisiana serving socially vulnerable coastal communities, including Zion Travelers Cooperative Center (ZTCC), Bayou Grace Community Services, Bayou Interfaith Shared Community Organization (BISCO), Coastal Women for Change (CWC), Asian Americans for Change, GO FISH, Steps Coalition, and Terrebone Readiness & Assistance Coalition (TRAC). All of them contributed greatly to garnering support for the RESTORE Act.

“We thank the Gulf Coast delegation for their work ensuring impacted communities receive vital resources,” said Kaitlyn Troung, Executive Director of Asian Americans for Change in Ocean Springs, MS. “We look forward to working with the states and the federal government to ensure these funds help restore our fisheries for future generations, reduce the risks of our most vulnerable populations, and create new jobs and training opportunities.”

The region has lost 50 percent of its inland and coastal wetlands and oyster reefs. In Louisiana alone, a football field of land disappears into the Gulf every hour. Over the next 20 years, the Gulf is vulnerable to an estimated $300 billion in economic damages from hurricanes and flooding. Investments in oyster reef construction, marsh building, and strengthening living shorelines and barrier islands could help restore damaged ecosystems and reduce vulnerability to hazards.

“The bayous along the Gulf of Mexico have always served as a safety net, helping to employ and feed our families,” said Rebecca Templeton, of Bayou Grace Community Services. “Coastal erosion, sea level rise and now the oil spill are threatening this unique resource. We need to make the best of these funds and repair our coast to protect our communities for future generations.”

/ENDS

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