At least two barrier islands to be rebuilt with $100 million in BP money


Louisiana coastal restoration officials plan to use $100 million given to the state by BP to rebuild at least two barrier islands west of the mouth of the Mississippi River, in conjunction with money available from several federal coastal restoration programs.

Soon after the BP Macondo well began spewing oil that threatened the state’s coastlines, Louisiana officials obtained a commitment from the company to give the state $360 million to build 5-foot-high sand berms alongside existing barrier islands on both sides of the river.

Last month, BP agreed that the last $140 million of that money could be used by the state to complete four berms that gained federal permits, and to transition work on some of those berms into full-scale barrier island restoration projects.

The state is using about $40 million to complete work on a sand berm running alongside the northernmost Chandeleur Islands, Robert Routon, a project manager with the state Office of Coastal Protection and Restoration, told members of the state Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority on Wednesday.

Between $5 million and $10 million of the remaining money would be paired with $40 million already committed by the Breaux Act Task Force to rebuild Pelican Island in Plaquemines Parish, Routon said. The project’s design has been changed to both take into account the new money and to reposition the island to take advantage of the berm built along its shoreline as part of the oil spill protection project.

The money will allow construction of 180 acres of sand dune built to a height of 8 feet above sea level, which would stretch along about 2 1/2 miles of the eroded island. About 400 acres of marsh would be built behind the island.

Another $60 million of the BP money will be used to rebuild about 151 acres of dune stretching 2 1/2 miles along the Gulf of Mexico side of Scofield Island, just east of Pelican. The plans for that island also call for building 278 acres of marsh on its northern edge.

Routon said state officials are negotiating with the Army Corps of Engineers and other federal agencies over how best to use the remaining $30 million. It could be used rebuild two slices of rapidly-disappearing Shell Island, just west of Pelican, using one of the berm projects as a base. Or it might be used to rebuild a segment of Chenier Ronquille, which is to the east of Grand Isle and Grand Terre islands.

Routon said state officials also continue to negotiate with officials with the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service about finding ways to expand the berm work being completed on the Chandeleurs into a full-fledged restoration project.

The authority also was updated on the status of the BP disaster’s Natural Resource Damage Assessment process. Louisiana and other Gulf Coast states and officials with several federal agencies are attempting to determine the value of damaged or destroyed natural resources, including wildlife and wetlands. The ultimate goal is to provide BP and other responsible parties with plans for projects that would mitigate the short-term and long-term effects of the spill on natural resources.

Drue Banta, who is representing the state in the assessment process, said the states and federal agencies are close to signing a memorandum of understanding that will be presented to BP to request advance funding for natural resource damages.

State officials say getting an early share is especially important for Louisiana, which wants to use its share build coastal restoration projects that already are approved by Congress, but lack money for construction.

Authority Chairman Garret Graves said he and other state officials also are concerned about the efforts of other states to gain an equal division of money that BP and other responsible parties are expected to pay as fines for violating the Clean Water Act by releasing oil into the Gulf.

He pointed out that BP this week said the well spilled only half of the 4.9 million barrels of oil estimated by a team of federal officials, and that if BP’s estimate is determined to be accurate, it would halve the fine money. BP could be fined $1,100 a barrel if the oil release is determined to be accidental, or $4,300 a barrel if BP and other responsible parties are found to have been negligent.

Using the government estimates, the companies could be on the hook for fines ranging from $5 billion to $21 billion.

Graves said he and other state officials also are supporting a proposal by U.S. Sen. Mary Landrieu to get Congress during its lame duck session to create a federal trust fund to hold the money until officials determine how to split it among the states and federal government.

Graves said he and other state officials are concerned that the next Congress may be less interested in agreeing with the recommendation of the administration of President Barack Obama, Gulf Coast Restoration chief and Navy Sec. Ray Mabus, and of Obama’s Oil Spill Commission that the majority of the fine money should be dedicated to coastal restoration, with most of the money going to Louisiana.

If the money is not protected, Graves said, Congress may attempt to use it for other purposes, such as balancing the federal budget.

The authority also heard recommendations from several parish presidents and representatives of the Southeast Louisiana Flood Protection Authority-East for additional restoration projects that should be built with BP money.

The proposals include:

  • Restoration of marshes along the north shore of Lake Pontchartrain from Goose Point to U.S. 11, which would cost $40 million;
  • A combination of shoreline protection and marsh creation at Alligator Bend on the eastern New Orleans land bridge, $50 million;
  • Rebuilding several segments of the Biloxi Marshes in St. Bernard Parish, $50 million;
  • Restoring parts of the Chandeleur islands, $100 million;
  • Restoring Pass a Loutre, one of the entrances into the Mississippi River, to allow it to channel more sediment into the bird foot delta, and rebuilding the wetlands surrounding it, at a cost of $250 million.

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Stuart H. Smith is an attorney based in New Orleans fighting major oil companies and other polluters.
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