As of April 20, it's been three years exactly since BP's Deepwater Horizon offshore oil rig exploded in the Gulf of Mexico, killing 11 and pouring some 5 million barrels of oil into the sea.
Some coastal restoration and protection work has occurred since the 2010 disaster, funded by initial payouts from the oil giant and other responsible parties. But plenty of work has yet to be done, with potential opportunity for engineering and construction firms in the Gulf Coast area to help rebuild and restore the coastline. But how soon the complex financial, legal and regulatory issues will untangle is not entirely clear.
"What we've learned in the three years since the rig explosion is that restoration is a long process," says Bethany Kraft, director of the Gulf Restoration Program at the environmental group The Ocean Conservancy, Washington, D.C. "BP and our natural resources trustees announced an unprecedented billion dollars in early restoration funding for the Gulf, but only eight projects have been announced [two each in Alabama, Florida, Louisiana and Mississippi], barely making a dent in the funding available."
BP could be "on the hook for billions of dollars in compensatory restoration, but this process is behind a legal curtain and we won't know much until there is a trial resolution," Kraft says. "Parallel to this legal framework for restoration that is directly related to the oil disaster is the funding that will come to the Gulf for restoration via the RESTORE Act. The Gulf states and trustees are beginning to craft the plans to guide this process, and an initial comprehensive plan is due on July 6."
The 2012 federal law, officially called the Resources and Ecosystems Sustainability, Tourist Opportunities and Revived Economies of the Gulf Coast States Act, will dedicate 80% of any civil and administrative penalties paid by involved parties underthe federal Clean Water Act to "restore both the economic and environmental health of the Gulf Coast." The law sets up a broad council to administer the funds, made up of the five state governors and key Obama administration cabinet officials.
Under the RESTORE Act, 30% of funds collected will be used to implement a council-run federal environmental plan; 30% will be split by the five states based on a formula related to miles of shoreline and distance from the spill; another 35% will be available to states for further environmental and economic restoration; and the last 5% is for research and ecosystem monitoring.
Unfortunately, no one knows how long litigation to determine the civil penalties owed by BP and other stakeholders will take, making it hard to say when RESTORE monies will actually hit the street. Transocean Deepwater Inc. pleaded guilty on Jan. 3 to violating the Clean Water Act and will pay $1.4 billion in civil and criminal fines and penalties, but when those dollars will be distributed is unclear.
"For perspective, the last payment for the  Exxon Valdez spill was last year," says Tucker Royall, special counsel at the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality.
Each state affected by the oil spill is in a different stage of recovery. Texas, for example, is laying the groundwork to create a restoration plan, Kraft says.
In Louisiana, recovery and protection work has gone on for years, given the state's propensity for hurricanes."It jumped from about $100 to 200 million a year pre-Katrina, to $1 to 2 billion a year post-Katrina. That's a combination of some post-Katrina emergency work, initially coming to shore up everything, dewater the city and shore up the levees," says Scott Kirkpatrick, president of the Coast Builders Coalition, Baton Rouge. "The New Orleans levee system was about a $15-billion project that they're wrapping up, and now we're transitioning to the sort of post-Deepwater Horizon part of the work,"