Dispute over Gulf of Mexico oyster beds affected by BP oil spill heats up

Alejandro de los Rios Apr. 18, 2011, 1:52am


Amid claims that BP had promised Louisiana oyster harvesters at least $15 million to replenish oyster beds, the oil company says it is not responsible for the payments.

Mike Utsler – the Chief Operating Officer of BP's Gulf Restoration Organization – announced Friday that the Unified Command overseeing the BP oil spill cleanup did not approve the state of Louisiana's decision to divert freshwater from the Mississippi River into coastal wetlands to push away incoming oil.

The freshwater diversion resulted in the decimation of public and private oyster beds along the Louisiana coastline.

On Friday, a group of oyster industry leaders gathered in New Orleans and said that BP has gone back on a deal to pay $15 million to help reseed oyster beds. In February, Louisiana's congressional delegation also claimed that BP had reneged on a deal made in November 2010 for the same amount to repair oyster beds.

Throughout, BP said it was unsure if the oysters died from the freshwater diversion or as a result of oil spewing into the Gulf as a result of the Deepwater Horizon oilrig explosion. Utsler's comments established BP's position that the oil spill did not cause the oyster beds to die.

"I can tell you categorically that the Coast Guard indicated that [the freshwater diversion] was not necessary and was not seen as a viable response technique," he told reporters.

Utsler also cited a report by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which stated that oysters' natural ability to sift through contaminants like oil quickly would have prevented them from being hurt by the spill.

Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal's office immediately disputed Utsler's claims that the Unified Command disapproved of the freshwater diversion, saying that process was coordinated with all parties involved in the oil spill response.

Not mentioned by either party was Gulf Coast Claims Facility (GCCF) administer Ken Feinberg's announcement in early February that oyster harvesters will receive double their 2010 losses, and that they'll receive damages for oyster beds killed when fresh water was diverted to fight the spill.

Feinberg's announcement came as he outlined the new guidelines for anyone filing a claim through the GCCF as a result of the BP oil spill.

During a press conference in March, Jindal announced that the State of Louisiana would be spending $12 million to replenish oyster beds and then bill the oil company later. Last week, the State immediately pledged $2 million for reseeding and announced another $2 million on Friday.

BP has not made any commitment to pay back Louisiana for money spent on oyster and wetland restoration.

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