Is Louisiana's Oil-Blocking Sand Berm Project Doomed?

By Andrew Moseman | June 25, 2010 11:14 am

ChandeleurBuild a wall of sand: That was Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal’s answer to protecting the state’s delicate marshlands when it became clear that BP wasn’t going to stop its gushing oil leak anytime soon. But now the federal government has put the kibosh on Louisiana’s construction, saying that the project to save one ecologically sensitive area will ruin another.

Scientists raised several objections to the state’s first proposal last month to build a long line of sand berms on 10 May. One key concern was that taking sand from in front of the Chandeleur Islands would make them more vulnerable to erosion. The state agreed to change its approach by taking sand from a site further away and then pumping it through pipes to build the berms [ScienceNOW].

However, that didn’t happen. Louisiana officials said they couldn’t get the pipes built in time, and asked the feds to let them dredge near Chandeleur at least until the other site was ready. OK, the Interior Department said—you’ve got a week. That week has lapsed, but Louisiana is still requesting more time to dredge near Chandeleur, promising to return the sand once the berm project has done its job.

That didn’t impress Tom Strickland, the Assistant Interior Secretary for Fish, Wildlife and Parks. He says dredging more material puts the already-eroding Chandeleurs at too much risk.

The Chandeleurs, in the Breton National Wildlife Refuge east of the Mississippi, are nesting grounds for species such as the brown pelican, and they are part of a diminishing natural hurricane barrier for Louisiana. Federal and state officials hope to someday fully restore the islands, which have been eroding for decades. Strickland said the berms are expected to last only about 90 days, maybe not even that long in an active hurricane season [BusinessWeek].

Even if you put the sand back there once you’re done with it, he says, it won’t be packed in or bonded like it was before, and might be washed away more easily.

The feds’ sudden outburst of concern failed to impress the already frustrated Gov. Jindal.

“We’ve been losing 300 feet every year off these islands — where has the federal government been?” he told reporters after touring the dredging site Wednesday. “All of a sudden when we’re building new land to protect our coast, they’re worried about a hypothetical” [CNN].

Previous posts on the BP oil spill:
80beats: Will Methane Gas in Gulf Waters Create a Massive Dead Zone?
80beats: From Marsh Grass to Manatees: The Next Wave of Life Endangered by BP’s Oil
80beats: Obama’s Speech on the Oil Spill: What Do You Think of His “Battle Plan”?
80beats: BP to Kevin Costner: We’ll Take 32 of Your Oil Clean-up Machines

Image: NASA Earth Observatory

  • jemand

    Where has JINDAL been? As he says, these burms are necessary to protect against hurricane erosion *as well* as this oil. They have had *decades* to build up protections for these vital wetlands, but they don’t care until there’s oil, then they want to do it the easiest and most destructive way possible, and probably not as well as they could have done it before, anyway.

  • Fernando

    They are called berms not burms dude and they are not being done in the most distructive way possible. You dig up some sand to protect islands and then you fill in the holes, not a difficult concept… As for Jindal having “decades” to build these berms, I may be mistaken but I don’t remember Jindal being the governor for the past few decades. Don’t speak about things you know nothing about.

  • Fed Up and P.O.’d


    I work for a major dredging company and have been building barrier islands off of the Louisiana coast for the past five years. These projects are paid for primarily by the US Army Corps of Engineers, with some money coming from the US Fish and Wildlife Service and the state of Louisiana. The problem is not Bobby Jindal or the state of Louisiana, it is our incompetent federal bureaucracy. These berms should have constructed immediately to help protect the most productive ecosystem in the northern hemisphere. Unfortunately, nobody in the federal government (President Obama included) appears to be capable of making logical decisions. A circus of clowns is running the show down there. Instead of allowing the berms to be built, they have stopped their construction! In addition, they are allowing BP to burn oil soaked pelicans and sea turtles alive for God’s sake! Obama’s response to this crisis has been inexcusable! Where is Kanye West shouting “President Obama hates Southern people!” ? Our President doesn’t defend our border with Mexico, and won’t allow Arizona to pick up the slack for the Feds inaction. Furthermore, he sits on his hands while the ecosystems of Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, and Florida are destroyed. What’s it gonna take for our President to get a clue and start helping us instead of exacerbating our country’s problems?!?!?!?

  • Reality

    The Berm Facts Chronologically:

    May 11, 2010 – The state requests an emergency permit to build berms along Louisiana coast from the Corps.
    May 14, 21, and 24, 2010 – State submits amended information in response to agency comments.
    Governor publicly states he is going to build the berms without permit because permit process taking to long.
    May 27, 2010 – The Corps issued an emergency Clean Water Act Section 404/Rivers and Harbors permit to the state. The permit specified the sand borrow sites that could be used by the state. One of the permit conditions was that the states work could not harm threatened or endangered species or their nesting habitat.
    May 27, 2010 – Incident Commander approves BP paying for a demonstration berm.
    May 28, 2010 – State adds condition to the berm building plan that BP must pay for the work. Demands Coast Guard order BP to pay. Minimum of $360 million required to build the berms.
    June 3, 2010 – Incident Commander approves BP paying for a total of 6 berms.
    June 4, 2010 – BP provides $60 million to state to start the berm building.
    June 4, 2010 – State signs Corps permit. State mulled over accepting the permit for a full week before accepting the permit. The state had 30 days to file a full permit application from the day the permit was issued (deadline July 3, 2010). State assumes full responsibility for addressing and restoring any environmental impacts caused by the berms. State could be responsible for funding billions of dollars to restore damage caused by building the berms.
    June 4, 2010 – State hires Shaw Group to administer sand berm building.
    State continues to complain the Corps took to long to issue the permit.
    States requests that Corps release dredges from existing contracts so dredges can be used. Possible that 30 or more dredges would be required to complete the berm work over the next six months. Corps must weigh the economic impacts to the nation if dredging is halted at ports, harbors, and navigation channels across the nation.
    June 9, 2010 – Corps release Dredge California from contracts so that state can hire dredge for berm work.
    June 11, 2010 – Shaw requested a borrow site closer to shore because it is cheaper to pump sand to the berm due to the shorter distance. The near shore borrow site the state initiates dredging in was not one of the original sites permitted by the Corps. State promised to immediately backfill the borrow site to avoid impacts to the barrier islands.
    June 13, 2010 – The Corps approved the near shore borrow site to be used until 23 June 2010.
    June 23, 2010 – State did not meet the requirement to be setup at the approved borrow site, nor apparently did they make much of and effort to be ready to switch over the approved borrow site.
    US Fish and Wildlife Service informs state that work must stop as was approved because the work the state was doing was making it more likely that an endangered species was going to be harmed.
    June 24, 2010 – Corps orders berm building stopped until project is setup to use approved borrow site. State knew from day one (June 13, 2010) that they only had the near shore borrow until June 23, 2010 so should not have been a big surprise when the US Fish and Wildlife Service and Corps actually expected them to honor their comment.
    June 24, 2010 – State says that they were going to need 7 days to be set up at approved borrow site. Guess they should have been staging pipe during the week they were dredging so they were ready to make the switch over to the approved borrow source.
    June 24, 2010 – Governor sends letter to President Obama saying state needs 7 more days.
    June 24, 2010 – Parish President Nungesser sent a letter to President Obama asking for 7 more days of dredging at the near shore borrow site. Nungesser tells President that he needs answer ASAP because he is going on CNN that night to talk about this issue.
    President Nungesser’s CNN interview seemed to be missing a few of the facts spelled out above.

  • MrSmith

    This berm project is an excellent example of a complicated issue that is constantly oversimplified. Add to that our insistence that something can be done right away and a willingness to blame whomever we already distrust and you get micromanagement by the masses. The truth is that no one is geared up to deal with a disaster of this scale and not every idea that sounds good is.

    I deal with resource managers working in the Gulf state and federal agencies, including the Corp of Engineers. None of them think the state’s approach to the berm project is smart, including knowledgable folks in Louisiana’s own agencies. One scientist who spoke at Louisiana’s State of the Coast Conference recently said he believes that anytime we can shore up the barrier islands we gain. He did not disagree with others who pointed out that they need to be constructed to last. If you borrow from the wrong places you will degrade what you are trying to protect.

    The consensus seems to be that stopping the oil from reaching the shore is the best approach. Some filling in of gaps in barrier islands would be prudent if it can be done in time (proper construction takes a while) but the focus should be on pulling as much oil as possible off the surface.

  • Andrew Moseman

    @ MrSmith Thanks for the inside perspective on this.

  • Pwned

    “They are called berms not burms dude and they are not being done in the most distructive way possible.”


  • anna stuarat

    All I see is stalling on the part of the Government accompanied by flimsy excuses only the ignorant and willing-to-believe-crowd believe because he has (D) after his name. If O has wanted this done, it would have been done. Period. He did so with the healthcare issue, seizing private industry, going outside the Constitution to muscle BP for money. Don’t tell me this man or the Government’s hands are tied on this.

    I have one word to say and it’s unprintable. And, that’s the same word to the response from the businessman who thinks this is “complicated.” It’s not. What the heck is there to “protect” once the ecology system is destroyed? Sortuv like trying to save a window in a house that’s on fire by refusing to use water that might warp the wood. Stupid! O did want this to happen, and it didn’t. I agree that he will use this to federalize the oil business. May he fail! May he be removed from office as soon as possible before this fool can do more damage.

    That is if the Black Panthers allow it.

  • Chatty Kathy

    I agree with Mr. Smith that the sand berm solution is much more complicated than it appears.
    Consider this: The berms do not serve to capture the oil. Oil and water follow the path of least resistance. In other words, if you put up a barrier/berm, the water and oil will merely flow along until it finds an opening. So basically, Jindal wants to protect his state and let the oil flow to Texas or Florida because nobody there will be voting for him there.

    And anna stuarat (stew-a-rat?) making comments about things you know nothing about is simple, as is believing that President Obama makes these decisions in a vacuum. Where did you get your degree in Civil Engineering?

  • Mary

    Thank you Chatty Kathy because people like Anna and Billy Nungresser just want to take potshots at the Obama Administration. I am from the Gulf Coast but believe that with all good comes some bad. I am an environmentalist but Louisiana wants it both ways. Reap the BP benefits but pass on the burden of cleanup to everyone else in US. The hell with the other states. Well, Bobby Jindal, you need to continue to help your state in all administrations. I seem to remember that the issue with the Louisiana coastline has been there a long time. Billy Nungresser is just a CNN HOG. (not just literally)

  • Lana

    Thank you Chatty Kathy for the stew a rat chuckle of my day. However, for Anna’s benefit, perhaps someone should explain the aspects of transference.


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