Federal officials halt sand dredging to create Gulf of Mexico oil spill barrier


Federal authorities have ordered the state to stop dredging east of the Mississippi River, where sand from the bottom is being gathered to build barriers against the encroaching Gulf of Mexico oil spill, Gov. Bobby Jindal said.

Jindal and Plaquemines Parish President Billy Nungesser said federal authorities want the state to move a dredging site farther from the Chandeleur Islands, a sensitive chain of barrier islands.

However, the Interior Department said the order was issued because the state was pumping sand from a sensitive section of the island chain and had failed to meet an extended deadline to install pipe that would tap sand from a less-endangered area.

The two Louisiana officials argue dredging should continue.

The dredging area includes the Chandeleurs and other barrier islands that are sensitive nesting grounds for species such as the brown pelican, which has been hit hard by oil washing up from the BP well 40 miles southeast of the mouth of the river.

Interior Assistant Secretary Tom Strickland said the berms are important in protecting marshes and wildlife. “But the berms have to be built right so they don’t compromise the barrier islands, which serve as a first line of defense against storm surges and hurricanes,” he said.

“We will continue to work closely with the state of Louisiana to move the project forward as we fight to protect Louisiana’s coasts, communities and wildlife from the BP spill,” Strickland said.

Strickland said the state originally agreed to take sand from an area in the northern Chandeleurs, but had been been pumping from a more sensitive area in the middle part of the chain. He said earlier this month the state asked for a week’s extension on its agreement to run pipe to the more desired area but did not meet the deadline. “All we are trying to do is hold them to their own agreement,” Strickland said.

In a letter to President Barack Obama, Nungesser urged Obama to let the dredging continue.

Jindal said about 450,000 cubic yards of sand has been dredged in the area.

He said it would take about 5 days to build the pipeline federal authorities want to access the new dredging site. “It took so long to approve this project. We don’t want to be tied up in more red tape,” he said.

Jindal, a frequent critic of the BP and federal responses to the spill, has proposed building massive berms to intercept the oil before it gets to the coast. The plan has received partial approval from the corps. BP has agreed to pay $360 million for the project.

The Army Corps of Engineers oversees the permitting process. A corps spokesman says the permit has not been suspended.

The berm project has drawn criticism from some coastal scientists who fear it will change tidal patterns and could lead to more long-term erosion of the islands.

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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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