RESTORE Act offers Gulf Coast a shot at economic mobility after the oil spill nightmare

By Jeffrey Buchanan, Oxfam America

Out of the tragedy of the 2010 BP oil disaster, we could soon see hope emerge. New legislation, the RESTORE the Gulf Coast States Act, just passed by Congress, could bring billions of dollars in resources and a range of new opportunities for environmental restoration, fighting poverty, and promoting economic mobility.

According to the Pew Center on the States, Alabama, Florida, Louisiana, Mississippi, and Texas rank among the worst states in the country for economic mobility: whether it's the ability of a child born into a poor family to climb the economic ladder or the likelihood of a middle class family to fall into poverty.

They are also home to fishing communities like Dulac, LA, Apalachicola, FL, Bayou La Batre, AL, Point au La Hatche, LA and Pascagoula, MS, which face double to triple the national poverty rates. These communities have always been places of limited means, but a healthy Gulf put a roof over the heads and food on the table of families for generations. But now, after Hurricane Katrina and the BP oil spill, small multi-generational family fishing and seafood enterprises are under threat.

The full extent of the spill's ecological damages is unknown, but in many places shrimp, oyster, and crab catches are down. This means underemployed shrimp boat captains, oyster harvesters, and deckhands and layoffs at processing plants. The loss of income has stretched social services as proud, formerly self-reliant people are forced to turn to community nonprofit agencies and food pantries for assistance.

It's not just the recent disasters that have bruised the Gulf; over many years, the region has lost 50 percent of its inland and coastal wetlands and oyster reefs. Over the next 20 years, the Gulf is vulnerable to an estimated $300 billion in economic damages from hurricanes, coastal erosion, sea level rise, and flooding.

Recognizing this challenge, a coalition of Gulf State legislators led by Senators Mary Landrieu, Bill Nelson and Richard Shelby, along with Reps. Steve Scalise, Steven Palazzo, and Cedric Richmond, together with community, environmental, and business allies navigated historic legislation to direct 80% of as much as $21 billion in 2010 BP oil spill civil fines back to economic and environmental restoration of the Gulf Coast states.

While how these dollars are spent lies in the hands of state and federal decision makers, they provide an opportunity for new resources for oyster reef construction, marsh building, and strengthening living shorelines and barrier islands to help restore damaged ecosystems and reduce vulnerability to hazards. They can also help put people back to work and provide new pathways out of the current struggles along the coast and towards economic mobility.

Every million invested in ecosystem restoration creates between 17 and 39 jobs, according to Oxfam research. Restoring coastal wetlands, barrier islands, and oyster reefs can create good, family supporting wage jobs from welders, to civil engineering technicians, to dredge boat captains, to heavy equipment operators, skills which are already in demand locally, while also restoring our fisheries for future generations.

These jobs can also be a good source of economic opportunity. According to Ancil Taylor, Vice President of C.F. Bean, a Belle Chase, LA-based dredging firm, "If you come in at an entry level, work hard, and stay with it, there really is a chance to move up the ladder." A young man who began working with Bean as a dishwasher "worked his way up within the crew to become a US Coast Guard certified captain piloting one of our vessels."

The sponsors of this bill deserve enormous kudos, but the job is not done. Now we need to ensure federal government and the state decision makers entrusted with these funds get the right policies and programs in place not only to restore this incredible natural resource, but to ensure we use these funds to create economic opportunity for low income, disadvantaged, and underemployed coastal workers, including fishery workers.

Positive examples exist on the Coast: from training fishermen in the bayou to be certified marine personnel, helping shrimpers in Oceans Springs to learn welding, or training at risk youth in New Orleans to be environmental technicians. The Louisiana First Hiring Act and the Mississippi Jobs First Act have also created new opportunity by placing qualified local workers in restoration and recovery projects.

Now we need to connect the dots and bring industry, community, workforce institutions and government together -- to provide new career pathways out of poverty and build more resilient communities.

(Photo of Byron Encalade, president of the Louisiana Oystermen Association, by Audra Melton for Oxfam. "This is the first time in generations we have had our waters taken from us," he says.)