Sunday, June 6, 2010

The Great Wall Of Louisiana Hoax

 I admire Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, and, gulp, Sen. David Vitter, for standing up against BP and the federal government in demanding what they consider is the right approach to protect the state's coastline from the Gulf of Mexico oil spill.

It isn't, a boatload of scientists agree.

The in-your-face approach by the two Republican leaders as well as a contingent of angry parish presidents in their quest to build even tiny portions of a 128-mile protective wall of sand berms has won the admiration of frantic residents and the platitudes of their chief fan club back in New York City, Fox News.

And.they're right. BP and the Army Corps of Engineers has dragged their feet processing the permit application which is a scaled-down version of what the Bush administration rejected as too expensive after Hurricane Katrina ravaged the Gulf Coast in 2005.

Jindal complains even a prototype could have been constructed by now if it weren't for foot-dragging.

Gregory Stone, director of the Coastal Studies Institute at Louisiana State University, agreed with Jindal and his "worth-a-shot" supporters. "I understand we are in a jam right now, but, good Lord, we have sophisticated computer models that can do this in a matter of weeks.… It's sort of unconscionable that we've gone well over a month without scientific input."

Here's the deal folks. Compared to what's-her-name, Louisiana's former governor during Katrina, Jindal is a driving force and unquestionably is trying to do what he thinks is best to protect his state's fragile coastlines. The problem is what he's proposing, and threatening to take action into his own hands, is more of a political hail Mary pass than an engineering fix. It's pie-in-the-sky, throw other people's money at the wall and hope something sticks.

The simple fact is this: What Jindal wants in what skeptical engineers call "The Great Wall of Louisiana" will be washed out with the first tropical storm blowing off the Gulf waters.

Jindal's original plan was to construct 128 miles of sand berms with 102 million cubic yards of seabed dredged from the coastline floor to bolster the barrier islands and absorb oil before it reaches sensitive marshes. It would cost $950 million and take nine months to build. The oil slick arrived two weeks ago and no end on the horizon.

Coast Guard Adm. Thad Allen, in charge of the government's supervision of BP's obligation to clean up the mess, said he reluctantly approved the first of six berm sites at Scofield Island, west of the Mississippi River as a prototype.

"There are a lot of doubts whether this is a valid oil spill response technique, given the length of construction and so forth," Allen said. He ordered BP to pick up the estimated $360 million cost of the revised 45-mile-long berm.

BP spokesman Mark Proegler said: "The company will not assume liability for unintended consequences." Although the state signed contracts with a dredging firm, BP has yet to provide the funding.

Jindal said Friday:. "We are moving ahead without BP. We gave them two choices: They can either send us a check, get out of the way and let us start this work, or they can sign a contract and do it themselves. We are going ahead without them."

Although the berms will be 300 feet wide at their base, tapering to 25 feet at the top, a sand wall is not considered a robust structure under the Gulf's extreme summer conditions. 

As we are finding out in the Gulf of Mexico disaster, engineers are like economists. For every 10 who claim the job can be done, another 10 can be found to grind out all the insurmountable hurdles to overcome.

While Gregory Stone of LSU agreed Jindal's plan had time for computer model testing, he was not endorsing the plan itself. He warned that scooping sediment out of the sea bottom could accelerate wave action. "It's not advisable to go out into shallow water and dredge and not expect potential negative impacts," Stone said. "That's going to increase the energy of the waves."

Other concerns:

The berm system could reroute the spill up the Mississippi Delta, and it would be unlikely to survive even a mild storm during the current hurricane season.

It also will absorb the short supplies of sand badly needed for projects to restore the state's coastline, damaged by past hurricanes.

Heavy equipment, including barges and dredge lines, could interfere with nesting season, now at its peak, for protected bird species.

The use of sand berms to collect oil has been around for some time but has never been employed on this scale. Jindal has been the plan's most vociferous booster.

Louisiana has for decades been fighting a losing battle to reestablish its barrier islands, low-lying sand spits where natural shifting and erosion have been exacerbated by the channelization of the Mississippi by oil companies and residential and commercial developers and by recent catastrophic hurricanes. The Chandeleur Islands once extended almost to the Mississippi coast but lost 85% of their land mass in Hurricane Katrina.

The berms "will not survive even a low-intensity tropical storm in the northern gulf," said Jack Kindinger, director of the U.S. Geological Survey's Coastal and Marine Science Center in St. Petersburg, Fla. "If we have one next week, the berms will be gone. We have to be careful not to do more harm than good."

Kindinger said that the new barriers may increase tidal action in open water, which would boost the salinity in estuaries and alter the lives of marsh plants and wildlife.

In a similar manner, the project could inadvertently drive oil into the Mississippi sound, the Biloxi marshes and Lake Borgne, according to the Army Corps' analysis.

Such worries prompted the Interior Department to conclude: "We do not think the risks inherent in proceeding without more environmental study and knowledge are acceptable."

Coastal scientists and oceanographers were brought in this week to present their views on the berm proposal to state and federal responders. Many said they were frustrated, wondering why their expertise was not brought to bear sooner.

Denise Reed, interim director of the Pontchartrain Institute for Environmental Science at the University of New Orleans, said that given the construction timelines, expectations that the berms will stop oil are unrealistic.

"There is a public sense that this is the solution that we need," she said. "I found this proposal extremely difficult to evaluate because it's so idealized and conceptual.… We are not going into it with our eyes wide open."

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