BP wants surf to clean beaches in Grand Isle


HOUMA – BP has filed a request to complete cleanup of Grand Isle’s oiled beach with a controversial technique called “surf washing.”

Environmental groups are protesting the permit because they say the method, which pushes oil-stained sands back into the surf to help break down oil, could reintroduce pollutants into the water.

BP filed the request with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the same agency from which it withdrew a similar permit in July after environmental agencies asked for more information about the technique. In that request, BP proposed to use surf washing on the beach at nearby East Grand Terre Island.

“Even if this technique made sense, it doesn’t make any sense to be doing it now when there’s still oil out there,” said Matt Rota, water-resources director with the Gulf Restoration Network, one of the groups that have filed comments of concern.

BP did not respond to a request for comment made with the Deepwater Horizon Houma Incident Command Center.

Grand Isle is among local areas that have seen the most oil as a result of BP oil spill, which began April 20 when the Deepwater Horizon oil rig exploded. BP stopped the flow from the damaged well in July after millions of gallons spilled into the Gulf of Mexico.

According to BP’s permit application, surf washing pushes oiled sands back into the surf to speed crude breakdown and is employed in the final stages of cleanup as part of an “overall shoreline treatment strategy.”

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the National Marine Fisheries Service and the state Department of Wildlife and Fisheries are some of the government agencies that filed comments against the surf-washing proposal.

EPA wrote that surf washing would “essentially reintroduce pollutants into the aquatic environment” and wants to know if any controls will be used to make sure that isn’t happening.

“We understand that extensive sand cleaning continues on Grand Isle and that the beaches there currently appear to be relatively clean. However, it is unclear from the application materials whether there remains a significant risk of buried oils or continued oiling of beach sands,” EPA says in its comments.

Rota said the permit application also doesn’t effectively outline just how much oily sand will be allowed to re-enter the Gulf.

“I don’t think the documents gave enough assurance that significant amounts of oil won’t be pushed back in the water,” he said.

The National Marine Fisheries Service expresses concerns that there is no information about the size of the area to be surf washed on Grand Isle. It asked that any emergency permit for surf washing be limited to 20 cubic yards, or 200 linear feet, of shoreline.

Rota said it’s not clear how equipment operators will differentiate between sands that are “stained” with oil and can be washed in the surf effectively and sands that are too oiled for surf washing.

“They say they’ll only push in stained sand. They have a specific amount that is allowed, and if there’s more oil, they wouldn’t push it in,” Rota said. “You won’t have the bulldozer guy get out every few feet and measure. The method of determining what’s stained is unclear.”

Kerry St. Pe’, director of the Thibodaux-based Barataria-Terrebonne National Estuary Program, said if the oil BP is looking at is already degraded, surf washing it probably won’t do much good.

But he said on some of Grand Isle, the contamination is “very deep,” going down a foot to a foot-and-a-half under the sand. At that depth, microbes might not have access to the oxygen they need to break down oil.

But St. Pe’ said he’s concerned surf washing might involve dumping a lot of sand into the surf at Grand Isle that will never come back, something that would be a detriment to the fast-eroding barrier island.

The state Department of Wildlife and Fisheries suggested the project might impact bird-nesting areas on the beach, including habitat for piping plover, a species listed as threatened.

The EPA says it’s concerned that approving this permit would clear the way for widely using the technique to clean oiled beaches. The cumulative effect on the environment of using such techniques is unknown.

“The application is inadequate,” Rota said. “And there’s potential for oil to be in the sand, and the potential for more oil to wash ashore. We don’t want the oil to be reintroduced into the environment or the ocean.”

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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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