Dredge, Baby, Dredge: Can Sand Stop the Oil?

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Win McNamee / Getty Images

Crude oil in a marsh area near Brush Island, La., on May 26, 2010

Pass Chaland is one of the most idyllic spots along the barrier islands off Louisiana's Gulf Coast. But the broad tidal flow of soft, white-capped waves, flowing inland through shell-tiled sands and tall bird-nesting grass, may also be an open door to the oil slick gushing relentlessly from British Petroleum's Deepwater Horizon oil-rig spill roughly 50 miles away in the Gulf of Mexico.

That toxic disaster threatens to swallow the fragile and ecologically critical bayou marshes beyond inlets like Pass Chaland — and has indeed already begun to foul marshland at the state's southeastern tip. To P.J. Hahn, that means the idyll needs to be temporarily plugged. "Just 12 miles out I was boating through motor oil a couple days ago," says Hahn, director of coastal-zone management for Plaquemines parish, the Louisiana county that includes the Chaland bayou west of the Mississippi River. "It could come blowin' through here in a very short period of time." As a porpoise sidles up in the water nearby as if to listen in, he adds, "We've got to attack it as fast as we can."

To do that, Hahn says, barriers called sand berms need to be constructed in Pass Chaland and other sites off the Mississippi delta — a project with a price tag estimated at some $350 million. But as far as Hahn and most Louisiana officials are concerned, that price pales against the damage that the BP spill — already the worst man-made environmental disaster in U.S. history — stands to wreak on the Gulf coast. The millions of feet of plastic booms already stretched across the Gulf water won't be adequate protection, they argue, now that BP failed in its attempt last week to cork the oil geyser 5,000 feet beneath the surface with mud. BP also says it can't stop the leak, which is spewing tens of thousands of barrels of oil into the Gulf each day, until it completes a relief well sometime in August. (In the meantime, BP acknowledged that while it works this week to place a cap on the broken drill-pipe apparatus to siphon off the oil, the flow could actually increase some 20%.)

What's more, say scientists from a number of universities watching the spill, much of the oil is now traveling beneath the ocean surface, beyond the booms' reach. On Monday, BP again disputed that claim, but it found little if any sympathy in Washington, where the Obama Administration, already widely criticized for its slow and aloof response to the calamity, is feeling burned by the company's lack of candor about the leak's magnitude. Back in Louisiana, officials like Hahn say BP is denying the existence of subsurface oil plumes in order to avoid having to pay for containing them. "We really don't know all we're fighting here," said Hahn, accompanied by engineers from the Louisiana National Guard, as his boat moved among various locations for proposed sand berms, barriers that are supposed to be a stronger defense against the slick than conventional surface booms since they rise from the ocean floor and stand some six feet above the water surface. "But what we do know is that it won't travel under the berms we build. It's the only way to capture the oil effectively."

Perhaps, but the berm issue has created its own toxic friction between Louisiana and the Obama Administration, which only late last week approved six berm sites. It will only commit to paying for one, however, as a sort of test to determine if more are worth erecting. That $16 million berm will go up just west of the Mississippi River off Scofield Island, and will be funded by either BP or the Federal Government's Oil Spill Liability Trust Fund. The Administration's point man on the BP spill, Coast Guard Admiral Thad Allen, maintains that while "we're not averse to attempting this as a prototype," there are "a lot of doubts about whether this is a valid oil-spill-response technique." And there is no guarantee, he adds, that the Federal Government will help pay for five other approved berms, three more west of the Mississippi and two east of the river.

That federal reluctance has angered Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal and Plaquemines parish president Billy Nungesser, both Republicans, who are the two biggest sand-berm proponents. "We could have built 10 miles of sand boom already if [the feds] would have approved our permit when we originally requested it" shortly after the spill began April 20, Jindal said last week. Said Nungesser, "The federal government has got to move on this and BP has got to pay for it. Without closing as many gaps as possible, we're going to get oil in the marshes."

Critics have accused Jindal and Nungesser of political grandstanding. As urgent as closing gaps like Pass Chandal may appear, the plan has more doubters than just Allen. Environmentalists and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers — as well as BP — fear even temporary berms could mess with natural tidal flows as well as the integrity of naturally existing barrier islands. There are also questions about how well they hold up in storms, and about the effects of the massive dredging of ocean-floor sand required to construct them.

Berm backers say the sand and other material will be gathered from either waste sediment or shoals more than 10 miles offshore. That will assure no deepening of the Gulf waters close to the coast, which can strengthen hurricanes and their storm surges as they make landfall. They also plan to keep small spaces open at sites like Pass Chaland to maintain tidal flow. As for structural integrity, the state and the Army Corps plan to place the berm material in Hesco baskets, large protective barriers manufactured by Hesco Bastion USA in nearby Hammond, La., which the military uses to protect troop installations in war zones like Iraq. What's more, Hahn points out, Louisiana and Plaquemines parish have been preparing a proposal for restoration of the barrier islands ever since Hurricane Katrina ravaged them in 2005. That plan is similar to (but more permanent than) the berm-building process, he says, meaning state and local officials have already been studying what will and won't work.

Still, Washington has only green-lighted 45 of the 90 total miles of berms Louisiana has proposed. Louisiana Senator David Vitter, also a Republican, calls that "absolutely outrageous" and has suggested that President Obama "doesn't seem to have a clue." Jindal and Nungesser, meanwhile, are stumping hard for the berms at home. At the Plaquemines parish seafood festival over the weekend, many locals even wore T-shirts that read "Dredge Baby Dredge." It might not be the prettiest motto, but to folks who live and work near Louisiana's bayous, it seems the best way to fend off the far uglier sight offshore.