Gulf of Mexico oil spill called a continuing threat to Louisiana coast


Construction of sand berms along 40 miles of Louisiana Gulf Coast barrier islands needs to continue because oil from the Deepwater Horizon blowout in the Gulf of Mexico continues to threaten interior wetlands that make up some of the state’s most fragile fisheries and wildlife habitats, Louisiana officials told the Army Corps of Engineers on Monday.

However, the state has put on hold plans to build the rest of the 101 miles of barriers for which it had been seeking a permanent permit from the corps.

In a letter to the corps, Office of Coastal Protection and Restoration Director Steve Mathies said there’s still a need for the emergency permit for berm construction granted by the corps on May 27, despite complaints received by the corps from federal agencies, independent scientists and environmental groups. The complainants said the berm construction is a threat to endangered sea turtles, fish and other wildlife, and that the berms are no longer needed because the Macondo well was finally plugged.

Two weeks ago, the corps asked the state to respond.

“Since that time, many of these same entities continue to gather information on this unprecedented environmental disaster, discover new locations and forms of oil, and acknowledge the value and sensitivity of the ecological system that this emergency response action is working to protect,” Mathies wrote. “Until certainty of the location, threat and effects of the spilled oil is known, stopping actions to protect this important national resource would be irresponsible. We must remain prepared.”

During a Monday helicopter flight to view the berm construction and the cleanup of oil in wetlands in Bay Jimmy in northeastern Barataria Bay, Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority Chairman Garret Graves said the state is adamant that berm-building must continue. Officials hope to have the dredges doing the work eventually rebuild the islands adjacent to the berms as part of federal-state oil spill recovery efforts.

“It’s important to keep in mind that there’s more confirmed oil in the Gulf of Mexico today than there was when this berm project was proposed or approved,” Graves said. “There’s still millions of barrels of oil in the Gulf that’s been confirmed.”

Dredge companies have moved 12.6 million cubic yards of sediment and sand so far, about 44 percent of the material that the original plans said was needed to build the six approved berms, according to corps records.

About 5.5 miles of berm have been completed, while a large amount of sand has been moved to staging areas near the berm sites from borrow areas at Hewes Point, north of the Chandeleurs and from Pass a Loutre, used as a disposal area by the corps for sediment dredged from the river’s navigation channel.

In his letter, Mathies quoted from recent testimony before the national oil spill commission by Florida State University oceanographer Ian McDonald, who said more than 50 percent of the 4.9 million barrels released from the well was still in the Gulf as “a highly durable material that resists further dissipation.”

Mathies also cited observations posted on the Internet in September by University of Georgia oceanographer Samantha Joye, who wrote that she had found oily material in sediment in samples from the deepwater area near the well that were more than 2 inches thick.

A report by scientists aboard the Arctic Sunrise, including Texas A&M University researcher Ranier Amon, on Sept. 30 reported lower-than-normal oxygen levels in an area stretching 300 miles to the west of the wellhead. But the oxygen levels were not as low as would be expected if the oil had been fully dissolved, “suggesting that the oil has not ‘disappeared as has been previously proposed by various sources,” Mathies said.

On a 3 ½-mile-long sand berm built along the northernmost Chandeleurs, Graves said numerous tar balls had washed up in recent weeks, along with other debris. On Monday, however, a brief search during 20-minute stop on the berm turned up only two small two-inch by one-inch patties of oil and sand.

The Chandeleur berm stretches north of the remains of the island chain, which has been decimated by repeated storm surges that chopped up the sandy remains of a 3,000-year-old delta at the eastern end of a former course of the Mississippi River.

The islands have been slowly moving east with the storms, so the berms actually sit in the shadow of where parts of the islands lay only 20 years ago, according to a U.S. Geological Survey atlas documenting the chain’s erosion since 1855.

A flyover of Bay Jimmy told a different story about the oil’s persistence. There, oil sheen was clearly visible moving south from oiled wetlands as tides moved water from wetlands into the Gulf. Oil cleanup workers were mopping up 2-foot to 3-foot-wide oily borders of wetland patches throughout the area.

Mathies told the corps that the state decided to place 13 segments of its larger berm plan into a “hold” status in part because officials had denied the state use of one offshore source of sand.

The oil spill response Unified Command decided against allowing sand to be dredged from the St. Bernard Shoal east of the Chandeleur Islands.

The removal of that sand source required major changes in the construction plans and also increased costs, as sand had to be dredged and transported from farther away, Mathies wrote.

He said that based on the Unified Command’s decision, “it is clear that the Federal On Scene Coordinator is unlikely to approve the additional borrow sites required to construct the remaining 13 segments.”

The state will continue to move forward with planning for the additional segments, however, in case additional oil threats are determined to exist in the areas where those berms would have been built.

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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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