WASHINGTON – The Senate approved Thursday using the bulk of water pollution fines stemming from the 2010 Gulf oil spill to pay for restoration in five Gulf states, a move hailed by environmental groups and state officials.
The money is tied to a transportation bill that the Senate still must pass.
BP PLC could be fined between $5.4 billion to $21.1 billion under the Clean Water Act, depending on whether the company is found grossly negligent.
Clean Water Act fines typically go into a fund to pay for oil spill cleanup costs and damages, but under the Senate provision 80 percent of the fines would be divided among Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Florida and Texas.
The measure cleared the Senate 76-22 as part of a larger transportation bill. Gulf Coast politicians lobbied hard to get the funds.
"This bipartisan legislation directs support to the Gulf States where it is needed," said U.S. Sen. Roger Wicker, R-Miss.
Environmental groups called the vote a major victory.
"When was the last time we had 76 votes in the Senate, let alone 76 votes on a bill to invest billions in restoring one of America's most treasured landscapes?" said Paul Harrison of the Environmental Defense Fund.
Earlier this year, the House passed a similar measure to divert the money. President Barack Obama has also called for disbursing the penalties to the states.
It is uncertain when BP will be forced to pay the fines. It is possible that the Justice Department and BP could settle the case before it goes to trial or the fines could be assessed after a trial.
Under the measure, the money would be spent on projects to restore the environment and the Gulf Coast's economy. A portion of the money also would go into a science fund to study the Gulf.
Associated Press writer Cain Burdeau contributed to this report from New Orleans.