Experts say plan to keep oil off Louisiana coast is flawed

By Matthew Bigg – Analysis

VENICE, Louisiana (BestGrowthStock) – Louisiana authorities are desperate to start building sand levees to keep a massive Gulf of Mexico oil spill from swamping their coast, but experts have serious doubts about the $350-million project.

The plan would reinforce and extend barrier islands in the Gulf by taking sand from the sea floor and placing it to form walls extending around 40 miles on each side of the Mississippi River, state and local leaders said.

The resulting berms — which are narrow ledges or shelves — would then snag oil gushing from the uncapped BP Plc well before it entered into the coast’s fragile wetlands, where it could do great harm to fishing grounds and wildlife.

Scientists, environmentalists, engineers and other experts who have studied the Gulf coast said the plan could not be implemented fast enough to stop the encroaching oil from the uncapped well.

“There are two major problems: where we would find the sand? How would we mobilize in time to make this effective?” said Robert Dalrymple, professor of civil engineering at Johns Hopkins University.

Some experts also complained of being excluded from the Louisiana plan and said it was being conducted hastily.

“The scientific community has been ostracized by the way the whole thing has been approached,” said Gregory Stone, professor of oceanography and coastal sciences at Louisiana State University.

“I applaud the concept. My concern is that we are doing this haphazardly and it comes around and bites us and that has longer term implications,” said Stone, who said sandbags and protective booms would make a better stopgap measure.

A little over a month after the well blowout and rig explosion that killed 11 workers, sheets of rust-colored heavy oil have already come ashore in dozens of places along Louisiana’s coast and in Alabama and Mississippi.

Fears that more is on its way reinforces the state’s view that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers should immediately grant permission for the plan to start, Governor Bobby Jindal said.

“There is no reason for delay. Every day that goes by without this permit being issued, without these dredgers being out there, is another day we are losing in terms of fighting this oil off of our shores,” he said earlier this week.

The U.S. Coast Guard would build the levees and London-based BP would be made to fund it, said Jindal, adding that dredgers were being prepositioned, surveys being conducted and water sampling already was under way.

Given the pressure on various governments to respond decisively to the political storm the spill has provoked, it appears that it will be difficult to reject Jindal’s appeal, especially when he is backed by local officials.

The Corps said in a statement on Friday it “understood the importance and significance of this emergency permit request” and was treating it as a top priority, soliciting comments from other agencies as required by law.

DOUBTS

Experts in Louisiana said the plan puts them in a bind: reinforcing barriers such as the Chandeleur Islands is a long-term goal of coastal restoration and it would not be right to express doubts at a time when an environmental peril looms.

But they still have reservations:

* The berms could restrict the flow of Gulf water into the Delta, but too little is known about how that might impact the region’s ecology.

* The new levees would be vulnerable to tropical storms. Hurricane Katrina in 2005 washed away 80 percent of the Chandeleur Islands, a barrier chain in the Gulf, said Abby Sallenger, an oceanographer at the U.S. Geological Survey.

* The massive works project could threaten marine life such as sea turtles.

* The state has made insufficient use of the vast array of coastal research and the models used to compute the impact of projected man-made interventions to protect it from erosion.

State leaders say levees could be erected in a few days to join some barrier islands, increasing protection — and any protection is better than none.

But completing comparable projects in Maryland, Delaware and New Jersey has taken years and required many millions of cubic feet of sand, Dalrymple said.

Given the complexity of the Delta marshlands, oil would likely get in anyway.

“There’s no real way of keeping it (oil) out of the marshes using any kind of barrier except very locally in quiescent bayous,” said Paul Kemp, director of the National Audubon Society’s Gulf Coast Initiative.

“There is a lot of consternation and part of it is that we know so little about this plan and what do know shows a lack of thought,” Kemp said.

Stock Report

(Editing by Paul Simao)

Experts say plan to keep oil off Louisiana coast is flawed