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: 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 – Measuring the extent of oil spillage

With the six-month anniversary of the BP spill now in the rear view mirror the company as well as a variety of officials both federal and state would like the world to believe the oil is gone.

But photos and first-hand accounts from Barataria Bay recently show the opposite – oil still reaching high into the marshy grasslands, baby crabs and adult shrimp covered by crude, slicks on the surface.

If you didn’t know it was November the scene is reminiscent of July, the height of the spill, with haz-mat suited workers rushing around in small boats, booms and vacuums still being deployed in attempts to clean up what is clearly still a mess. According to P.J. Hahn, Plaquemine Parish’s coastal zone director, more than 32,000 gallons of oil were sucked out of nearby marshes in just the past 10 days. “People think it’s over, but look around,” says Hahn.

This oil plaguing Barataria Bay is not newly arrived, but has rolled in since the well was officially capped on September 19th. While the Louisiana coastline considered “heavily oiled” (more than half an inch) has decreased from 54 miles in early July to 28 miles today, the total amount of Louisiana shoreline impacted by oil has grown from 287 in July to 320 miles today.

“In some ways it’s worse today,” Hahn said, “because the world mistakenly thinks all the oil has somehow miraculously disappeared.

“That’s simply not the case.”

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Bowermaster’s Adventures: Lifiting the drilling moratorium

Less than 180 days after the Deepwater Horizon rig exploded and sank and less than 60 days after BP finally sealed the well that leaked 200 million gallons of crude into the Gulf of Mexico, the Obama Administration lifted its own moratorium on deepwater drilling.

While Gulf State oil workers, especially in Louisiana, are relieved, hoping that new permits will be approved by year’s end and jobs that have been on hold can continue, others are concerned the early end of the moratorium (days before it was planned, on November 30) may be rushed.

Five reasons we may regret the early lifting:

  • New rules and regulations required by oil industry operators may not be sufficiently understood, by either government or industry. New standards require that operators must have blowout preventers inspected and design approved by an independent third party. In direct response to the BP accident, new deepwater rigs must come with reports illustrating exactly how they could prevent or reduce a blowout at the wellhead. And they must have all casing designs and cementing operations certified by an outside engineer. All of that sounds good on paper, but is the new government agency set up to inspect new permits ready?
  • Environmental groups including the Natural Resources Defense Council – comprised of scientists and lawyers – worry that not enough is known about what exactly caused the BP explosion to prevent a similar accident from happening again. Despite the new standards for permitting “there is no insurance that future drilling will be done responsibly,” says the NRDC’s executive director Peter Lehner. Cutting corners will remain a concern in the very-for-profit oil industry.

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  • Lifting the moratorium in the Gulf gives fuel to those hoping for a similar relief off the coast of Alaska. Since the BP accident all drilling in the Beaufort Sea has been banned; Alaska Governor Sean Parnell immediately picked up the argument that if it’s okay to drill below 5,000 feet in the Gulf it should be a-ok to drill in shallow waters in his state’s waters. For now the Department of Interior is proceeding cautiously regarding oil drilling off the North Slope due to to concerns that any spill could decimate a still-mostly pristine environment.
  • With the moratorium lifted Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal will have plenty of time on his hands; he’s made lifting the ban his fulltime job since early summer. Never friendly to environmental concerns, Jindal may refocus on the misplaced building of offshore berms (a boon to buddies in the construction business?). He is also pushing for even more shallow water permits – since June only 12 have been permitted off Louisiana; pre-spill that many were okayed every month. But competition for ugliest political maneuvering in the state is stiff: Senator Mary Landrieu continues to single-handedly block the appointment of a new White House budget director until she’s satisfied the moratorium is “sufficiently” lifted.
  • The biggest reason to worry about more deepwater drilling is because inevitably leaks and spills will continue to occur. And not necessarily because of industrial malfeasance or corners being cut, just statistically. As long as we continue to drill one, two and three miles below the ocean’s surface – an always risky, messy undertaking whether on land or sea – there will be accidents, small and, one day again, big. The best protection against another BP-like accident? Less dependence on crude.

[Photos by P.J. Hahn]