Louisiana sand berms are not stopping much oil from Gulf of Mexico spill, EPA says


Federal environmental regulators are blasting Gov. Bobby Jindal’s $360 million plan to block oil from the BP spill with sand berms, saying barriers built so far are ineffective and threaten wildlife.

In a Sept. 7 letter made public Thursday, the Environmental Protection Agency urged the Army Corps of Engineers to turn down the state’s recent request to build 101 miles of sand berms to stop oil from contaiminating shores and marshlands. The state needs permission from the Army Corps to complete the project.

The sand berms — paid for with $360 million from BP — have drawn criticism from coastal scientists and federal regulators. Critics say the work was ill-conceived and would damage the environment. Still, Jindal has made the sand berms a cornerstone to his strategy to fight the Gulf of Mexico oil spill. The state said it has spent $86 million on the project so far.

EPA said there were serious problems with the project.

On May 27, the Army Corps of Engineers allowed the state to build 40 miles of berm, but only four miles have been constructed so far, EPA said.

The four miles of berm have “received only light oiling” and done little to stop oil from reaching wetlands and barrier islands behind them, the EPA said.

Garret Graves, a Jindal aide who handles coastal affairs, said “some the heaviest oiling on Louisiaina’s coast” occurred on the berms. He said the Louisiana National Guard has picked up at least 1,000 pounds of oily debris from them.

“Now is not the time to stop protective measures that have proven their effectiveness,” he said.

Also, EPA said the berms pose problems for sea turtles, birds, seagrass beds, navigation, water quality and the natural flow of sediment along the coast. The agency called on the Army Corps to do in-depth environmental studies before allowing the state to build more berms.

Graves said birds have been attracted to the berms and that they “appear to actually increase bird habitat.”

EPA approval is an important part of the federal government’s permitting process, but Army Corps spokesman Ricky Boyett said it was too early to determine how EPA’s opposition would affect its decision.

Graves said he did not see EPA’s opposition as outright rejection. Instead, he said the state would work with the state to ensure new berms help restore Louisiana’s coast. In its letter, EPA said it might approve more berms if they could be proven to help restore barrier islands.

Some Louisiana officials blasted the EPA on Thursday.

“To be honest, most of these people sit behind a computer; they all have degrees, but none of them have a lick of commonsense,” said Grand Isle Mayor David Camardelle.

Federal agencies have shot down spill-fighting projects championed by some Louisiana officials, including a plan by Camardelle to block some passes with rocks.

Louisiana officials argue that their proposed projects not only keep oil out of sensitive marshes but also would help build back the badly eroded coastline.

“They’re worried about these islands. In the 1930s and 1940s, all these islands were connected,” Camardelle said. “What is wrong with us dredging and building these islands back up and trying to connect these islands?”

Gregory Stone, the director of Coastal Studies Institute at Louisiana State University’s School of the Coast & Environment, said building back Louisiana’s coast is a good idea, but that the work has to be done correctly.

“Anything that would be undertaken to allow for the introduction of sediment onto the beaches and barrier islands is a plus,” Stone said. “I’m not opposed from that perspective to the berms.”

But he said the state rushed into the sand berm work without considering where the sediment for the berms would come from, what effects the work would have on currents and tides and how they would stand up to storms.

“The next tropical storm or tropical cyclone or winter storm that comes through this area, they are not going to stand a chance,” Stone said. “They have begun to disintegrate and they are not doing the job that was anticipated.”

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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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