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The Times-Picayune - Congress Headed to Showdown Over Coastal Restoration Money

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Date:
Location: Washington, DC

By Bruce Alpert

The Senate and House are heading for conflict over whether to release the first federal construction money for the Louisiana Coastal Area Program that Congress approved five years ago.

A Democratic-controlled Senate appropriations subcommittee Tuesday voted to allocate $16.8 million for the work, as requested by President Barack Obama. But a House subcommittee has stripped the funding from its version of the 2013 funding bill for the Army Corps of Engineers.

Obama made a similar request for the financing last year, but after a long delay Congress ended up providing no construction money for coastal restoration.

Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La., said the state can't afford to wait.

"For decades, the people of Louisiana have been fighting a noble battle to save the most productive and environmentally significant delta in the world," Landrieu said. "We are losing a football field of wetlands every half-hour in an area where millions work and live."

But the GOP-led House Appropriations Water and Energy Subcommittee, as it did last year, is focusing on other priorities for the corps, according to Rep. Rodney Frelinghuysen, R-N.J., the panel's chairman.

He said the committee is investing heavily in navigation and flood control, "the activities most critical to public safety, jobs and the economy."

Prospects for enactment of the Restore Act, which would send 80 percent of any Clean Water Act funds for the 2010 BP spill to the five Gulf states, remains uncertain. The Senate included the measure in its transportation funding bill, and the House approved language setting aside a trust fund to collect and distribute the fine money for the states.

A conference committee of senators and House members is expected to meet soon to try to resolve differences over the two bills. Sen. David Vitter, R-La., a supporter of the Restore Act, will be a panel member.

Still, a Landrieu aide said Tuesday that even if the bill is enacted there is no way of knowing when the fine money would be available, and the state, with its continuing loss of vital wetlands, needs to begin work as quickly as possible.

BP and other parties are continuing to negotiate Clean Water Act fines with federal and state officials. Some projections peg the fines at $5 billion to $20 billion.

For the long haul, Louisiana has a $50 billion plan to restore the state's coast and ecosystems.

Landrieu thanked Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., the chairwoman of the water and energy subcommittee, for supporting Landrieu's push to include coastal restoration work in the 2013 spending bill.

"This legislation funds critical coastal restoration projects in Louisiana, and I am grateful to Chairman Feinstein and the subcommittee for making this a priority," Landrieu said.

Congress authorized the Louisiana Coastal Area Program in 2007, approving about $2 billion in "near term" restoration projects. But Congress has so far not appropriated any money for construction work.

The water and energy bill approved Tuesday by the Senate Energy and Water Appropriations Subcommittee also includes $9.36 million to develop future coastal restoration projects.

Rep. Steve Scalise, R-Jefferson, and Rep. Cedric Richmond, D-New Orleans, tried last year to amend the House Water and Energy spending bill to include $1 million in coastal restoration construction money but were unsuccessful.

In a statement, Scalise, a member of the House GOP leadership, didn't criticize fellow Republicans for leaving out coastal restoration construction funds from the water and energy spending bill but vowed to continue to seek funding.


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