POLITICS:

Point man on La. coastal issues moves on, leaving a large legacy

Louisiana's point man on coastal issues, who led a major overhaul of the state's storm protection and wetlands restoration programs and was a key figure in its response to the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, announced yesterday that he is stepping down.

Garret Graves, who came to Baton Rouge after years as a Capitol Hill staffer, has served as Gov. Bobby Jindal's (R) coastal adviser and as chairman of the Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority for more than six years.

Jindal yesterday named Jerome Zeringue, currently executive director of CPRA, as Graves' replacement.

The news came as a shock to environmental groups and local stakeholders, who tried to suss out political motivations in the announcement and anticipate implications for the state's restoration efforts and legal negotiations related to the 2010 Gulf oil spill. But in an interview, Graves said that the decision was a personal one.

"When I took the job, I had a commitment with my wife that it would be a two-year deal, and it ended up just really ballooning," he said. "I don't think there's ever going to be a good time or ever going to be a situation where you say, 'OK, we're finished,' so you've got to figure out when the ride slows down enough for you to step off before getting hurt."

In a news release announcing the departure, Jindal praised Graves' accomplishments.

"After years of repetitive studies from the federal government, wasteful spending, bureaucracy and red tape, Garret helped transform the state's coastal restoration and hurricane protection program into national models," Jindal said. "Garret is a fighter that doesn't take no for an answer, and he has gained respect from the Legislature, parish leaders as well as business and community leaders."

As chairman of CPRA, Graves led the major rewrite of the state's Coastal Master Plan to turn the Louisiana delta's massive annual loss of wetlands into a gain by 2050, while providing flood protection for communities and keeping the Mississippi River open for commerce.

Graves has also represented the state in negotiations with federal agencies and BP PLC related to the 2010 oil spill and on the Restore Council, the federal-state entity that oversees the spending of civil penalties related to the spill.

During the weeks of the 2010 oil gusher, Graves made daily visits to the coast. His fingerprints were all over the state's response, including a controversial plan to have BP spend hundreds of millions of dollars on sand berms in a bid to keep oil from entering wetlands.

Recently, Graves has run political interference on a controversial plan to create "diversions" through the levees lining the Mississippi River in a bid to bring nourishing sediment to waning coastal marshes (Greenwire, Aug. 19, 2013).

He has also been a vocal critic of a lawsuit brought by a southeast Louisiana levee board against 97 oil and gas companies over historical destruction of wetlands (Greenwire, Aug. 28, 2013).

Although Graves did not always see eye to eye with levee protection authorities, federal agencies and environmental groups, he earned wide respect.

"He's a really bright, determined, self-assured and sometimes difficult person, but on balance, he was just what was needed at the time, and frankly, I don't think we'd be anywhere near where we are now if it had not been him there," said David Muth, director of the National Wildlife Federation's Mississippi River Delta Restoration program. "He just came into it with kind of a passion and a determination, intelligence, eloquence, that you just don't see very often in state government or, for that matter, in any government."

Graves, speaking by phone this morning from outside a meeting with state and federal agencies over the ongoing lawsuit against BP, said that he has not yet decided what his next job will be. He said, though, that he has already filed paperwork to create a nonprofit that will focus on education about coastal issues.

"What's happening in Louisiana now is what's projected to happen all around the U.S., all around the world, and if people allow the Corps of Engineers to sit on the sidelines, if people allow [the Federal Emergency Management Agency] to continue to progress these absolutely irrational approaches, what does that say for Manhattan when they run into these problems? What does that say for California? For Miami?" Graves said.

Graves' departure comes as some of the early restoration projects funded by BP are underway, the first round of restoration grants from criminal fines related to the spill have been announced, and the Restore Council has finalized its approach to spending what could be billions of dollars in civil fines sent to the Gulf (Greenwire, Aug. 29, 2013).

Stakeholders said they expect that the table has already been set for coastal issues during the remainder of Jindal's term, which runs through 2015.

"We wouldn't be where we are today without Garret's exemplary leadership, but we don't expect the state will miss a beat," said Elizabeth Weiner, senior policy manager at the Environmental Defense Fund's Mississippi River Delta project. "We have full confidence and we all fully expect that the state's going to pick right up and keep going."

Zeringue, known as "Zee," will take over the top position at CPRA on Feb. 17. He has been Graves' right-hand man at CPRA and previously served as director of the Terrebonne Levee and Conservation District, home to a major oil and gas hub and the $10.3 billion storm protection project currently seeking authorization (Greenwire, Nov. 5, 2013). He also spent a stint as the coastal resources director for the Nature Conservancy of Louisiana and helped establish the Mandalay National Wildlife Refuge.

Muth, with NWF, said he expects that Zeringue will make the transition seamlessly and may be able to improve relations with the Army Corps, Graves' frequent sparring partner.

"Running a levee district in a fractious climate at a tough time, looking for money, looking for permits, looking for authorizations -- he's very politically skilled," Muth said.