$130M in BP spill money to help reconnect big swamp to river

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NEW ORLEANS (AP) — Louisiana will get $130 million in BP oil spill money to link its second-largest coastal swamp back up to the Mississippi River, and Alabama will receive funds to add up to 12,000 acres (4,800 hectares) to a wildlife management area.

The RESTORE Council, made up of officials from the five Gulf states and several federal agencies, voted for the projects on Wednesday. The group was created to allocate money from Clean Water Act fines paid by BP and others after the catastrophic 2010 spill.

The amount approved for Alabama's project was not immediately available.

Louisiana's grant will go toward a system designed to deliver fresh water and sediment from the Mississippi River into the Maurepas Swamp about 30 miles (49 kilometers) west-northwest of New Orleans. Because levees cut it off from the Mississippi River and salt sometimes gets in through canals and nearby Lake Pontchartrain, the baldcypress and tupelo gum trees that make it a swamp have been dying for decades. Marsh grasses have taken over some areas and others have become open water.

“The Maurepas Swamp is not just an amazing and beautiful swamp and Wildlife Management Area, but it is also a crucial, natural buffer between hurricane winds and storm surge,” Gov. John Bel Edwards said at a news conference livestreamed from Baton Rouge. "If we let this swamp continue to die off we would be putting many large communities in this region at increased risk."

The project is the biggest so far in Louisiana's coastal restoration program, and will benefit 45,000 acres (18,200 hectares) of swamp, officials said. The money will be available once all engineering, design, and permitting requirements are met, according to news releases.

“This is the first time we have ever attempted to connect a coastal forest to the river,” said Chip Kline, chairman of Louisiana's Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority.

The Restore the Mississippi Delta coalition praised the action. “Louisiana, once known for its abundant swamps, has increasingly become known for ‘ghost swamps’ devoid of life and productivity. We must act with urgency to protect what remaining swamp habitat exists for the benefit of wildlife and people in our state and across the nation,” the coalition said in a news release.

The council also voted to support Alabama's Perdido River Land Conservation and Habitat Enhancements Project, said Lauren C. Bourg, spokeswoman for Restore the Mississippi Delta.

That project would add 10,000 to 12,000 acres (4,000 to 4,800 hectares) to the Perdido Wildlife Management Area, and could be used for longleaf pine restoration, benefiting species including gopher tortoises, according to Alabama's proposal.

Money is coming from a trust fund set up by the RESTORE Act for 80% of the water pollution penalties paid after July 2012 by companies involved in the 2010 spill.

A well that BP PLC was drilling from the Deepwater Horizon rig blew in April 2010, killing 11 men. It took nearly three months to cap the well, which spewed an estimated 134 million gallons (507 million liters) of oil during the nation’s worst offshore oil spill.

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