Louisiana Oil-Spill Berms Under Study ~

When BP’s Deepwater Horizon oil platform exploded and burned last year in the Gulf of Mexico, federal, state, and local governments took a wide range of emergency measures to cope with the catastrophic release of crude oil into the ocean. One of the more controversial responses was a project, aggressively promoted by Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal, to build miles of sand-berm islands off the Louisiana shore, aiming to block the oil slick from entering the state’s sensitive bayous and marshes or fouling its mainland beaches. Discouraged by the Corps of Engineers from the outset, the berm idea got terrible reviews after the fact in a task force report to President Obama by the President’s National Commission on the BP Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill and Offshore Drilling, “ Deep Water: The Gulf Oil Disaster and the Future of Offshore Drilling.” Wrote the authors, “The least effective response technology was the berms... By the time BP capped the well on July 15 — day 44 of the berm construction project — Louisiana’s contractor estimated that 10 percent of one reach — 6 percent of the total project — had been completed. In late May, Governor Jindal had asserted that ‘[w]e could have built 10 miles of sand [berms] already if [the Corps] would have approved our permit when we originally requested it.’ In fact, it took five months to build roughly 10 miles of berms, at a cost of about $220 million. Estimates of how much oil the berms collected vary, but none is much more than 1,000 total barrels. On November 1, Governor Jindal announced plans to convert the berms into part of a longterm coastal restoration project, which BP would continue to fund. In his recently released book, the Governor maintained that the berms were ‘one of the most effective protection measures’ against oil reaching the Louisiana coast.” Effective? Probably not. But there’s no doubt that the berms were one of the most expensive measures taken — if not the most expensive. In November, the New Orleans Times-Picayune reported that the Shaw Group, chosen by Jindal as the sand-berm contractor, was being audited for possible overcharges (“ Audit finds Shaw overbilled for sand berms after Gulf oil spill,” by Associated Press). But the reported overcharges amounted to barely $500,000 out of the $251 million Shaw charged Louisiana for the work — all paid on BP’s tab. Evidently, a major engineering project like a miles-long rock and sand berm is too slow to work as an emergency response. But Louisiana officials, as well as some local parish leaders, are still defending the berms as a long-term project to restore the state’s coastline (conveniently paid for by an offending corporation). Are sand berms good for the barrier islands? That question is still being studied, and the answer isn’t obvious. It’s clear that weather events have broken down much of the original man-made sand pile, says scientist Nathaniel Plant. Plant works for the U.S. Geological Survey in a St. Petersburg, Fla., field office as part of a multidisciplinary team gathering knowledge about sea-level rise and its effects on coastal zones. (Says Plant, “The duty of the Geological Survey is that we’re a research and information wing, and so we’re supposed to pay attention and understand things. We don’t regulate and we don’t build.”) Plant has been studying the sand berms since they were built, using satellite imagery, LIDAR ground-sensing laser images collected by aircraft, and sidelong photo reports from occasional fly-bys. “They built somewhere in the neighborhood of 15 kilometers of berm,” he told Coastal Connection. “About half of the original berm is now still visible in satellite imagery.” Most of that loss happened in the first winter, says Plant: “There were four major cold front events that caused most of the damage that we watched. Then there were two tropical events that came through in the summer that did a little bit more work.” But the sand from the berms might still be having a beneficial effect, says Plant. “The interesting part about this project is, they’ve moved a bunch of sand from other places to just in front of the islands, and even if that sand doesn’t retain its form in terms of a berm, that sand may actually end up being deposited on or behind or around the island, and could in fact contribute to the barrier island’s long-term health and survival. That is really why we are interested in watching this thing. We want to see if that pulse of sand has a lasting effect on the island.” Advocates of Jindal’s berm plan, in fact, already are arguing that the berms were worth the effort in order to build up the barrier islands for the long term, regardless of whether they worked against the oil spill. “I don’t have information to confirm or to refute that,” Plant says. “We’re planning to get out there with more detailed measurements to start adding up that sand to try and answer that question.” In general, says Plant, the Gulf’s coastal islands “have been on a long-term downward course. They’ve been moving on shore, they’ve been thinning, and they’ve been chopped up.” Next time a Category 3, 4, or 5 storm strikes the area, “it will go completely under water,” he says, “and waves and currents probably have the capacity to move the entire berm or the remnants of the berm. That’s not to say we know where all that sand will end up. Perhaps it ends up in a favorable place, and perhaps it doesn’t.” Long run, of course, the coastal environment nationwide and worldwide is threatened by sea level rise — the focus of the multi-specialty group Plant belongs to. In the context of climate change, it’s not clear whether severe storms will become more or less common, he says, but he points out, “We can probably bet that we will keep having storms.” Combine the storms with the long-run rise in sea levels, he says, and there’s trouble ahead. “If we get a little sea level rise,” he says, “odds are that will lead to more erosion. That’s a long-term thing that is going to add steady pressure to the construction zone. So a little bit more persistent pressure, plus at least as many storms, if not more, and that puts us into a quadrant that has really, really high pressure — two things that are bad enough by themselves--coming together.”