WASHINGTON — More than 140 women who had championed the Gulf Coast after hurricanes Katrina and Rita were at it again Tuesday, convening on Capitol Hill to announce they were expanding their mission to the aftermath of the BP oil spill and the fines the company will be assessed.
The Women of the Storm represented the five Gulf Coast states — Mississippi, Louisiana, Texas, Florida and Alabama — and want the states to be guaranteed at least 80 percent of the money the government collects in fines from BP — an amount that could top $21 billion.
“If Gulf Coast recovery funding is postponed, it will cost the country dearly in the future to restore this region’s essential contribution to America’s sustainable food supplies, energy production and other natural resources,” said Anne Milling, a New Orleans activist who founded the group in 2006.
“We are bound by a common passion,” she said at a press conference surrounded by women from all walks of life who stood under their signature bright blue umbrellas — originally meant to symbolize the blue tarps over hurricane-ripped roofs — despite the sunny skies on the upper U.S. Senate lawn.
“If we don’t get the 80 percent, it will go into the general fund and we’ll lose that money,” said Nonni DeBardeleben of Pass Christian. “It won’t be used for our area.”
The fines could be levied as part of the Clean Water Act and would be separate from the $20 billion BP has already dedicated to assist the Gulf Coast residents affected by the spill.
DeBardeleben spearheaded the group of 16 women from Mississippi, including Ocean Springs Mayor Connie Moran, who went to Washington to make the case for legislation to secure the money for the Gulf states.
Connie Rockco, a member of the Harrison County Board of Supervisors, said, “Women have more of a global reasoning and we can work together.”
Sen. Roger Wicker, R-Miss., who met with some of the women Tuesday, is receptive. “Revenue collected from the Deepwater Horizon Clean Water Act penalties should be distributed directly to the Gulf States,” said Wicker. “These funds could then be used for locally directed economic and environmental recovery priorities to assist in the rebuilding of our Gulf Coast. This approach would require a change to the existing law. I am working with my colleagues to accomplish this and redirect this money to Mississippi and the other states directly impacted by this disaster.” EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson spoke at the press conference, signaling some level of Obama Administration support for directing the money to the Gulf for restoration — an idea promoted by Navy Secretary Ray Mabus in his Gulf restoration plan and by the National Oil Spill Commission in its report.
The Women of the Storm group is pushing for legislation introduced in the House by Rep. Steve Scalise, R-La., and which will soon be introduced in the Senate by Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La.
“It is good to see that this administration understands that to fulfill President Obama’s promise to leave the Gulf Coast better than it was before the BP oil disaster, Gulf Coast states need a dedicated and robust stream of funding to restore and protect our coast and our economy for the long-term,” Landrieu said.
“Coastal restoration is vital to the protection of our Gulf ecosystem, environment and communities,” Scalise said. Both lawmakers were warmly greeted by the women, who presented a petition of more than 130,000 signatures from around the country to show national support for Gulf Coast needs.
Charlotte Wells, a Galveston Bay Keeper, said the erosion and loss of wetlands was destructive to the entire eco-system.
“It’s very important we restore the coast from Texas to Florida,” she said.
The most colorful speaker may have been Lucy Buffett, sister of Jimmy Buffett and owner of LuLu’s in Gulf Shores, Ala., who began by saying that she was not political but “passionate about the Gulf.” But she delivered the coup de grace by saying: “This is Manners 101 for me. You mess up something, you go clean it up.”