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]

Bowermaster’s Adventures: Checking in on the BP spill cleanup

bp spill cleanupReports last week from the beaches of Alabama and Mississippi suggest that the post-BP gusher cleanup continues, with varying degrees of success, and that new oil continues to show up.

Near the Alabama-Florida border, a placed called Perdido (Lost) Key, BP-contracted crews have been sifting sand for more than six months to try and get rid of tar mats buried nearly three feet beneath the sand.

Having suffered 50 percent losses in tourist’s dollars last summer, the effort is being made to insure the areas renowned white sand beaches are pure white by the first of the New Year. The idea is to next move the process west along the coastal islands of Mississippi and the marshlands of Louisiana, using slightly different systems.

But locals in Perdido Key tell the Times that while a BP spokesman says he expects to eventually get “99 percent of what’s out there,” all the sifting and shifting of sand is not getting rid of the oil, just spreading it around.

Near Harrison, Mississippi, crews have been cleaning oil and tar balls off the beach for 200 days and the work continues, with expectations that it will last through next summer. A BP spokesman there says each crew is picking up 20 to 30 pounds of tar balls a day, by hand, since machinery has proved inefficient against the “small, oily clumps.” Along with the visible tar balls scattered along the shore, there is also concern about possible sub-surface oil buried beneath a layer of sand.Just offshore Harrison, the low-lying sand barrier called Horn Island took the brunt of the oil spill; heavy machinery is still being used there to try and clean it up.

Suggestions that the oil from the spill and its long-lasting impact is mostly gone seem to be exaggerated. About 135 shrimp and fishing boats are still at sea aiding in the cleanup; another 1,200 boats are waiting to be scrubbed clean and decontaminated at more than 20 dry docks across the Gulf of Mexico. Approximately 9,000 square miles of federal Gulf waters remain closed to fishing; bad weather has kept crews from getting enough species to sample and decide whether to reopen some of that area. It’s estimated that the daily cost of the cleanup has dropped to $27 million, from a high of about $67 million … a day.

Different cleanup concerns are being voiced about the Chandeleur Islands at the mouth of the Mississippi River off Louisiana. That’s where Governor Bobby Jindal and his troops attempted a quick fix at the height of the spill, bulldozing thousands of tons of sand in an effort to build-up berms to try and prevent the oil from reaching the marshes and shores.

Unfortunately, according to my friend Ivor van Heerden, a coastal restoration expert who’s been monitoring the impact of the spill since the very first day, that berm-building process buried oil as deep as seven feet. Since it was halted no effort has been made to retrieve that buried oil. He predicts normal winter erosion will unearth it and send it on to the shoreline.

He is concerned that local politicians may be purposely dragging their heels on proper clean up as a way to keep attention – and federal dollars – focused on the state.

“A few weeks back I had the opportunity to speak to some researchers at Harvard Kennedy School of Government and in their opinion Louisiana has become a ‘victim’ state. It cannot manage its resources well enough to generate sufficient income; instead it looks to get ‘payout’s’ from time to time. They also pointed out that this is a very slippery slope for a state.”

Flickr image via GT51

Bowermaster’s Adventures: America’s Night out for Gulf Seafood

bowermaster-gulf-seafoodLast week, nearly 300 restaurants across the country joined in promoting an event they called “Dine Out America: America’s Night Out for Gulf Seafood.”

The mission was straightforward: Get folks around the country back to eating fish, oysters, shrimps and crabs taken from the Gulf of Mexico. The impetus was that while most of the Gulf’s fishing grounds have been reopened since the spill and while government continues to vouch for its seafood’s safety, the market for Gulf seafood remains depressed.

The “special night out,” according to the New Orleans group that organized the nationwide effort, was intended to “honor the thousands of Americans and their families in the Gulf seafood industry who are now back at work fishing the Gulf waters for their catches.”

Which sounds fine and good, in a patriotic, support-our-troops kind of way, but one big question remains: Are we sure seafood from the Gulf is truly ready for prime time?

News stories from the region are not reassuring. Oyster beds are on the ropes, many still buried under detritus stirred up by the spill. Pictures from a Navy ROV last week showed a 30 square mile kill zone on the ocean floor near the site of the spill where nothing lives. Fin fishermen report they’re coming in with catches but that the markets for their fish have disappeared, forcing them to sell for 35 cents on the dollar. And last week NOAA closed 4,200 square miles of fishing grounds to red shrimp after tar balls were found in the same nets.

I called my friend Marylee Orr who, for more than 23 years, has run the Louisiana Environmental Action Network (L.E.A.N) in Baton Rouge. One of the group’s expertises is studying the impacts of environmental pollution on human health.

Though she has many friends and supporters who are fishermen and certainly understands their plight – many are still unemployed, uncertain when they’ll get back to fishing — based on just-completed blood sampling done by Louisiana chemists she’s not convinced the nation should be being pitched Gulf seafood.

Her concerns are straightforward:

In the midst of the BP gusher the FDA (with NOAA’s input and concurrence) questionably raised the allowable levels of PAH (polynuclear aromatic hydrocarbons) found in Gulf seafood. They are an EPA-classified carcinogen, particularly harmful to pregnant women and infants and the BP crude was full of PAHs. “The FDA based their decisions on a 175-pound person eating four shrimp a week, which is a joke on the Gulf,” she says, where four shrimp wouldn’t even qualify as an appetizer. “And what about all the children and our Vietnamese fishermen (who are smaller)?”

Much of the government’s evidence continues to be based on “sensory testing” – essentially giving seafood a sniff test. Only if a shrimp or fish does not pass the smell test does it go on to any further government testing. “We’ve given the seafood we’ve tested the smell test and there was no odor,” says Orr. “However when we got the numbers back after testing it there were alarmingly high for both petroleum hydrocarbons and PAHs.”

Orr and LEAN are not alone in their concerns. Ed Cake, an environmental consultant from Ocean Springs, Mississippi, recently told the International Conference on Shellfish Restoration, “They’re doing the sniff and taste test. We as human beings no longer have the nose of bloodhounds. I will not eat any seafood coming from the Central Gulf at this point.”

Chuck Hopkins, director of the Georgia Sea Grant Program at the University of Georgia told the same conference that he’d just been to New Orleans and had eaten shrimp and oysters six days in a row. But was it safe? Given the misleading information doled out by the government during the spill, he admitted he didn’t have a lot of faith in its current testing. “Why should I believe their claim that the seafood is safe?”

Perhaps the toughest and most consistent critic of any quick return to Gulf seafood has been Dr. William Sawyer of the Sanibel, Florida-based Toxicology Consultants and Assessment Specialists, who says since the spill he has found petroleum in 100 percent of the shrimp, oysters and fish he’s tested that was already on its way to the marketplace.

The government’s stand is that those toxins are far below dangerous levels.

But Sawyer is adamant. “I don’t recommend eating any Gulf seafood, not with the risk of liver and kidney damage.

He has called the FDA’s safety threshold “borderline absurd.” “It’s geared so that shrimpers can go back to work and that’s great … but if we’re talking about human health and the environment, you need to proceed slowly.”

Evidence of the dispersants used during the attempted cleanup continues to mount too. Off the coast of Florida, for example, since the BP well was capped the state’s Department of Environmental Protection has found the widely-used dispersant Corexit in two out of four tests; prior to the spill, they found no Corexit in 20 samples.

Flickr image via wolfpix

Bowermaster’s Adventures: Five reasons we should not believe the BP mess is “cleaned up”

Three months ago, on August 2, the White House – citing an in-house National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration study – announced that 74 percent of the oil released into the Gulf of Mexico by the BP mess was gone, had either been cleaned up or simply disappeared.

Few seriously believed the report at the time, including many NOAA scientists; even fewer think it’s true today.

It was six months ago that the Deepwater Horizon sank below the surface and impacts of the disaster are still being felt daily along the Gulf Coast and across the U.S.

While 90 percent of the federal fisheries are open, processors are finding little demand for what much of the nation’s populace still believes are damaged goods. While much of the oil appears to be gone from the surface, there is more and more evidence that there is a significant amount on or near the ocean floor. Oil remains buried on sand beaches and marshes and bays are receiving new oil daily, still impacting migratory birds and marine life. That $20 billion compensation fund BP set up has so far only doled out $1.5 billion; many are still awaiting a first check, many more still struggling with an unknown future. The moratorium against deepwater drilling has been lifted, with some new rules and guidelines in place, but there are no guarantees against a repeat performance by one of the 4,000 wells still drilling in the Gulf.

Five reasons we should not believe the BP mess is “cleaned up”:

1. Photos taken this month in Barataria Bay, 40 miles south of New Orleans, which is fed directly from Gulf waters, show the edges of the marshes are as heavily soaked with oil today as they were mid-July. According to Plaquemine Parish coastal restoration manager P.J. Hahn, “we are averaging about 30,000 gallons of recovered oil a week from the marsh, mainly around Bay Jimmy. We’re also picking up about 8,700 bags of tar balls a week along the beaches, mainly in Pass Chaland and barrier islands. It is definitely not over!!”

%Gallery-107702%2. In Pensacola, environmentalist Gregg Hall has been collecting video of the impacts of the BP mess on the white sand beaches of Florida since the first week of June. With 600 hours of video and photo documentation, he asserts that BP … and the government … are not allowing a true clean-up of the beaches there, by not allowing its clean-up workers to dig more than six inches into the sand “or they will be fired, and now they’ve taken their shovels away as well.” By not putting their heads – or their hands — in the sand, by allowing the oil that has washed ashore to stay buried, at least until the next storm uncovers it, the clean-up of Florida’s beaches is something of a mirage. A collection of Hall’s videos can be seen on YouTube.

3. Similar concerns are being raised in Louisiana, where Governor Bobby Jindal initiated late-in-the-game rebuilding of offshore berms – at the cost of nearly $400 million – ostensibly to help keep the oil from reaching shore. The construction didn’t work – too little, way too late – but still continues even though, as the Times reports today, many in government and scientists contend it is “pointless.” Blocking the oil that remains is with dirt and san berms is futile … unless you happen to be one of the contractors hired to do the digging and building, many of who turn out to be big campaign supporters of Jindal. Opponents say the digging and building is actually harming wildlife and squandering money that should be used for real and necessary coastal restoration. My friend Ivor van Heerden has been scouring the coast since the spill began and tells me, “They’ve now buried oil by as much as seven feet and will not allow us to clean it up. With this winter’s erosion this buried oil will be released” and ultimately wash onto shore.

4. There is ongoing concern about what happened to all that oily waste collected along the beaches. BP contracted with Waste Management to properly dispose of the thousands of tons of plastic bags filled with oil-soaked sponges, etc, which were supposed to be treated as hazardous waste and put only in landfills prepared to receive such. Mike Stiers writes to suggest that the waste has continually been dumped in non-hazardous waste landfills and questions whether the company that is supposed to authorize the disposal – TestAmerica – is the best outfit to be overseeing that side of the clean-up since it is a BP partner.

5. If you’d like to hear what it’s like living on the Gulf these days from those who actually live there, the Natural Resources Defense Council has hooked up with StoryCorps to “record, share and preserve the stories and experiences of those living through the BP oil disaster.” Listening to these very recent stories from fishermen, tourist guides, filmmakers and average folks on what it is like today to be living tomorrow’s headlines is the most eye-opening reporting of all.

Bowermaster’s Adventures: Using creatures to filter the sea

While scientists continue to monitor fish taken from the Gulf for raised levels of chemicals and oil, others around the globe are using specific species to purposely suck up polluted waters.

Two recent reports cite scallops and oysters being used like the proverbial “canary in a coal mine” to both warn of the impacts of growing toxins in the ocean and to help clean it up.

In Russia, the Moscow Times reports, organic chemists have set up a giant sea scallop garden in Kozmino Bay on the Sea of Japan – 7 times zones east of Moscow – near a new, very busy Siberian oil terminal to measure water pollution. Big, recent oil discoveries in remote Siberia are being delivered to the port by pipeline and business at the terminal is expected to double this year to 200 million barrels. Nearby in the same bay abandoned Soviet-era ships, pipelines and old Navy infrastructure rot in the sea.

Known for their ability to filter contaminants including oil and heavy metals, the scallops will serve as watchdogs for the booming port.

Curiously the scallops – 10,000 of the meaty suckers, squeezed into 80 long tubular nets — are not being used so much to help scientists conduct long-term monitoring thus preventing oil spills but rather to help clean them up, suggesting that spills are inevitable not stoppable.
“If the monitoring is successful, we have an idea to create large permanent colonies for scallops, mussels and seaweed at the bottom of the bay and use them to filter the water and keep it clean,” a spokesman told the Times.Across the Northern Pacific, the Voice of America reports on a Seattle laboratory where scientists are using baby oysters for their filtering systems. The goal is to assess just how efficient the oysters are at sucking up carbon dioxide, which is being dumped into the sea thanks to the burning of fossil fuels (the severe problem known as the “evil twin” of global warming, ocean acidification).

Paul McElhany, a biologist working at the Northwest Fisheries Science Center, has set up a four tanks reflecting the amount of carbon dioxide in the ocean in 1) pre-industrial times, 2) today, 3) the projected amount for the year 2100 and 4) a worse-case scenario. The tanks are filled with Pacific Northwest oysters, which are monitored each day by grad students.

Why oysters? Because they are apparently the most sensitive of all filter fish.

Not all fish are impacted similarly by the ocean’s increased acidity; apparently algae and seaweed prosper under elevated levels of carbon dioxide while shellfish can literally begin to dissolve.

Next up to be tested after oysters? Abalone, geoducks, clams, mussels and krill.

I’m not sure if I’d rather be a scallop assigned to suck up spilled oil or an oyster asked to put its life on the line to help better understand ocean acidification, but both sound better than what scientists are doing to poor zebrafish at Duke University, which are being used to analyze genetic mutations.

In efforts to better understand the inherited Bardet-Biedl syndrome — its symptoms are obesity, retardation and retinopathy – and Down’s syndrome, in vivo tests are being done on zebrafish to see how they respond to defective mammalian cells.

Word of caution: I’d be careful about ordering the Siberian sea scallops for the indefinite future.

[flickr photo via Dan Hershman]