Gulf Berm-Building Called “Waste of Money”

Despite serious competition (the earthquake in Haiti, war in Afghanistan, trapped miners in Chile) it’s no surprise that the biggest story of 2010, verified by the Associated Press, was the oil spill in the Gulf.

For nearly 90 days, beginning on April 20, the spill dominated headlines around the world and as the year winds down there are still multiple stories reported daily on the accident’s continued fallout.

Just in the last few days, for example: Unemployed Gulf residents in Louisiana unable to pay rent because jobs have disappeared; Florida claimants raking in bigger checks for being savvier at filling out forms than those impacted in other states; black jack dealers across the Gulf being denied claims for lost jobs; numerous reports on the long-term impact of the spill on wildlife, particularly bluefin tuna; a devastating Times story detailing the final minutes on the Deepwater rig before it exploded and sank and even bad Hollywood actors (Stephen Baldwin v. Kevin Costner) fighting over profits that might have been from its clean-up.

But my favorite story from inside the story has to be attempts by Louisiana politicians, led by Governor Bobby Jindal, to profit politically and economically from the spill by fighting for an expensive construction project – building berms on outlying islands to keep the oil at bay, which few experts thought would work – confirming the state’s reputation for political chicanery.There are some insiders who believe top politicians in the state may even have taken some perverse pleasure out of the spill for greasing a path for federal dollars to flow into Louisiana.

It was the presidential commission assembled to investigate the spill that last week formally nailed Jindal’s berm plan as a “waste of money.” The commission questioned a decision by retired Coast Guard admiral Thad Allen, representing the U.S. government, for approving the construction of the berms, saying it was made under “intense political pressure” from federal, state and local politicians.

“In short,” concluded the report, “massive offshore barrier berms are not a viable oil-spill response measure.”

The idea of shipping heavy construction equipment to the Chandeleur Islands to build them up, ostensibly as a way to keep oil from arriving on shore, was credited to a Dutch engineering firm. Jindal became the idea’s biggest proponent, pressuring other officials to lean on BP, which eventually agreed to put $360 million into the plan.

But the decision to fund the project was clearly based more on politics than reason. On May 22, Admiral Allen sent the following e-mail to his Chief of Staff and the Deputy National Incident Commander: “What are the chances we could pick a couple of no brainer projects and call them prototypes to give us some trade space on the larger issue and give that to Jindal this weekend?”

According to a report in the New Scientist, “the crucial event was a 2-hour meeting in Louisiana on 28 May with President Barack Obama, Allen, Jindal, and other Louisiana officials. After getting an earful about the need for more berms, Obama asked Allen to convene another group of experts to evaluate the proposal. On 1 June, about 100 scientists and officials gathered in New Orleans. Most of the experts were not impressed with the chances of the berms capturing much oil, the commission report recounts. But they also didn’t think the berms would be more harmful than the oil itself. “

Between June and October, when the berm building was finally halted, only ten miles had been built, at a cost of $220 million. An estimated 19 million cubic yards of sand had been shuffled around by construction companies based in southern Louisiana.

The project is estimated to have stopped just 1,000 barrels of oil, out of the estimated 5 million barrels spilled, at a cost of $220,000 a barrel.

In October the Times reported that the berm project was a boon to Louisiana industry. “Although many of the dredging companies working on the project have out-of-state headquarters, all have a major presence in Louisiana. The Shaw Group, the lead contractor on the project, is based in Baton Rouge and has been one of Jindal’s leading campaign contributors over the years.” Other local contractors included the engineering company of CF Bean and several dredging companies, based in Plaquemines Parish.

Jindal’s response to the commission’s report was to call it “partisan revisionist history.”

“We are thrilled that this has become the state’s largest barrier island restoration project in history,” he said.

Kyle Graham, deputy director of coastal activities in Jindal’s office, contended, “this was the largest scale dredging job in the history of the Gulf of Mexico. We had more heavy equipment in the Gulf actively dredging than there has ever been before.” Which may have been good for the bottom lines of the construction companies involved but no guarantee of any kind of success.

Coastal restoration experts along the Gulf have suggested in the past that building-up such berms to help ward off the future impacts of coastal erosion, hurricane storms and even oil spills can be a good thing. But not when it is done at the last minute, in ill-conceived fashion, essentially as an expensive band-aid.

One major concern is that all that sand moving simply buried the oil for the short term and that it will eventually come ashore as the six-foot tall berms erode under normal wave and storm action.

The estimated $100 million remaining in the berm-building plan has reportedly been put into a fund for long-term coastal restoration.

[flickr image via southerntabitha]