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Texas wildlife refuge to be restored with $26.5M settlement

San Antonio Express News logo San Antonio Express News 4/23/2018 Alex Stuckey

Nearly 20 miles of shoreline at McFaddin National Wildlife Refuge will be restored with the help of $26.5 million in funds related to the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, federal officials announced Monday.

The 12,300-acre Sabine Ranch in Jefferson County, recently purchased by The Conservation Fund, holds some of the last remaining intact freshwater marsh in Texas. The property, planned to be transferred to the McFaddin National Wildlife Refuge includes a wildlife-rich mix of costal wetlands, prairies and woodlands. © Shannon Tompkins/Houston Chronicle The 12,300-acre Sabine Ranch in Jefferson County, recently purchased by The Conservation Fund, holds some of the last remaining intact freshwater marsh in Texas. The property, planned to be transferred to the McFaddin National Wildlife Refuge includes a wildlife-rich mix of costal wetlands, prairies and woodlands. Fire boats battle the blazing remnants of the Deepwater Horizon platform in the Gulf of Mexico, April 21, 2010. The Trump administration has pursued a rollback of Obama-era regulations in the Gulf, including safety measures put in place after the Deepwater Horizon disaster killed 11 people and created the largest marine oil spill in drilling history. © US COAST GUARD / Us Coast Guard / New York Times Fire boats battle the blazing remnants of the Deepwater Horizon platform in the Gulf of Mexico, April 21, 2010. The Trump administration has pursued a rollback of Obama-era regulations in the Gulf, including safety measures put in place after the Deepwater Horizon disaster killed 11 people and created the largest marine oil spill in drilling history.

"This important investment will bolster a fragile stretch of shoreline that is critical to the coastal ecosystem and communities of southeast Texas," said Jeff Trandahl, executive director and CEO of the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, which made the announcement Monday. "The restored shoreline will also serve as a first line of defense against future storms."

The money comes from a 2016 settlement with BP, which leased the Deepwater Horizon oil rig that exploded in April 2010, spewing an estimated 3.19 million barrels of oil into the Gulf of Mexico. The company is required to pay the trustees for Deepwater Horizon Natural Resource Damage Assessment up to $8.8 billion over 15 years to make up for the natural resource damage along the Gulf Coast.

The 8,200-acre tract of Sabine Ranch transferred by The Conservation Fund to McFaddin National Wildlife Refuge earlier this month holds some of the best remaining wetlands and waterfowl habitat on the upper Texas coast. © Shannon Tompkins / Houston Chronicle The 8,200-acre tract of Sabine Ranch transferred by The Conservation Fund to McFaddin National Wildlife Refuge earlier this month holds some of the best remaining wetlands and waterfowl habitat on the upper Texas coast.

In total, the refuge has received more than $50 million from the BP settlement — most recently in October, when it received about $15.9 million for restoration in the Sabine Lake area at the Louisiana border.

The 8,200-acre tract of Sabine Ranch transferred by The Conservation Fund to McFaddin National Wildlife Refuge earlier this month holds some of the best remaining wetlands and waterfowl habitat on the upper Texas coast. © Shannon Tompkins / Houston Chronicle The 8,200-acre tract of Sabine Ranch transferred by The Conservation Fund to McFaddin National Wildlife Refuge earlier this month holds some of the best remaining wetlands and waterfowl habitat on the upper Texas coast.

Related: Deepwater Horizon settlement funds to be used to improve Texas coastline.

Monday's investment will focus on 17 miles of shoreline from High Island, Texas to Sea Rim State Park — southwest of Sabine Lake. Construction will begin later this year, and, once complete, 20 miles of coastline will be restored, according to a foundation news release.

Rob Blumenthal, foundation spokesman, said the Coast Guard discovered tarballs from the spill along the Texas Upper Coast beaches, including those on McFaddin refuge.

But the money helps bolster an even bigger, ongoing effort by Texas agencies to restore the coastline at McFaddin refuge by elevating the beach to a "sufficient height to reduce the influx of salt water inundation to the fresh water marsh ecosystems," said Brittany Eck, spokeswoman for the Texas General Land Office.

"Securing the remaining funding to complete the McFaddin beach dune project is vital to the safety of Texas' citizens and for protecting an irreplaceable coastal ecosystem," said Texas Land Commissioner George P. Bush. "This restored beach and dune system provides for a healthy marsh, which is key to storm surge protection for thousands of Jefferson County homes and business as well as nationally significant energy and national security assets in Port Arthur and Beaumont and the Big Hill Strategic Petroleum Reserve."

Thomas Kelsch, the foundation's senior vice president of the Gulf Environmental Benefit Fund, said the exposure to Deepwater Horizon oil as well as the state's ongoing effort, which started in 2013, is why the project stuck out for funding.

The restoration plan looked at the entire landscape, much of which was already degrading for a number of reasons -- this beach section has been subject to several hurricanes ... they basically wiped out the existing beach and dune system and as a result the area incurs more overwash when there are high storms," Kelsch said. "The agencies deserve kudos for getting on top of the situation."

The money awarded by the foundation Monday was through the Gulf Environmental Benefit Fund, created as stipulated by the terms of criminal settlement agreements between DOJ and BP and Transocean after the accident.

Alex Stuckey covers science and the environment for the Houston Chronicle. You can reach her at alex. stuckey@chron.com or Twitter.com/alexdstuckey.

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