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Sand berm saga smelling rotten (part two)


by Len Bahr, PhD*

Muck·rake  (mkrk) intr.v. muck·raked, muck·rak·ing, muck·rakes: To search for and expose misconduct in public life.

According to this definition I should add muckraker to my resume.

During the entire checkered 20 year history of coastal restoration in Louisiana no project has cost as much moolah, moved as much mud, or generated as much media coverage as the misguided attempt to construct up to 100 miles of sand berm barrriers to ‘protect’ Louisiana’s marshes from BP oil. Part one of a retrospective on Louisiana’s infamous sand berm saga was posted here on October 26.

Part two had originally been drafted to continue the discussion of the project’s checkered history and describe how it has performed. At the last minute the text was modified slightly to reflect a sand berm scoop on November 7 by AP reporter Cain Burdeau, which added a new wrinkle to the story…possible bureaucratic mismanagement, or worse, on the part of the Baton Rouge engineering firm The Shaw Group, Inc., which had been commissioned to oversee the costly project.

Speaking of engineering mismanagement and ocean barriers, a fascinating article by Norimitsu Onishi in The New York Times (Nov 2) described how bureaucracy and political corruption led to the construction of a controversial concrete wave barrier along a populated coastline in Japan. Three years later the barrier collapsed during the catastrophic Tsunami on March 11.

Deep pockets for energy production…spill prevention on the cheap

The Macondo blowout, followed by a 55 day eruption of oil and gas 20 miles offshore of Venice, Louisiana released a record volume of hydrocarbons into one of the world’s most productive coastal ecosystems. This caught the attention of probably billions of viewers, although Rick Perry and his fellow POTUS wannabees must not have paid attention, judging by the revival of the ‘drill baby drill’ meme in the ongoing debates.

Until the oil bleeding was staunched on July 15, continuous CNN coverage and internet video provided an unprecedented peek into the kitchen of the oil production fast food outlet.  This showed the contrast between the technology of oil and gas production…which operates at the hairy edge of engineering…and ad hoc emergency measures that have hardly advanced since Exxon Valdez in 1989.

Money is clearly no object when it comes to designing innovative ways to find and extract oil and gas from previously inaccessible and more dangerous and environmentally sensitive locations. Industry engineers, petroleum geologists and oceanographers based in Houston are constantly pushing the envelope, which boosts the risks as well as the rewards.

Judging by the Macondo experience, the industry has invested much more for ‘production toys’ than for ‘first aid kits.’ Captains of big oil…all one percenters…are loathe to invest big bucks to avoid fouling the coastal backyard of us ninety-nine percenters. Their stock holders would doubtless oppose pricey mop-up equipment for those rare but inevitable occasions when the sh*t really hits the fan.**

The sandy solution

Internet coverage of gushing oil from BP’s ‘blowout cam’ exposed and dramatized both the magnitude of the flow and BP’s failure to shut it down. In the midst of growing public anger and despair over a looming coastal catastrophe someone suggested, perhaps in jest, that if the oil couldn’t be stopped at the well, the coast could be walled off from the oil.

The specific creator of this oil barrier brainchild remains unclear, perhaps because he (it must be a he) prefers anonymity to losing credibility.*** Nevertheless, Governor Bobby Jindal and Plaquemines Parish President Billy Nungesser (BJ and BN) deftly transformed this whimsically unsophisticated concept into a serious Maginot Line project, perfectly suited for the 24/7 cable news cycle.

By the end of May the sand berm scheme had evolved into a massive emergency plan to fashion linear piles of sand parallel to the coast both east and west of the river…complete with rock barriers across the tidal inlets! Folks who understand coastal processes were dismayed that it was taken seriously.

The sand scam was bankrolled by BP, after the company was steamrolled and brow beaten by the ‘berm bros.’ The company pledged up to $360 million to fund the largest emergency big dig in coastal history, creating a virtual bonanza for the dredging industry.

The state vs. the feds

The scale and scope of this awesome enterprise brought it into the permitting world overseen by the Corps of Engineers and EPA, both time-worn targets for anti-regulatory rhetoric from Louisiana pols. The formal role of the Coast Guard in overseeing oil spills created a federal trifecta, a perfect foil against which BJ and BN could rage against the feds, using the mantra, “We know what to do; just get out of our way!”

Ultimately the feds caved and approved about one third (36 miles) of the berm segments.

Permit compliance and dredge-related activities were tracked by the US Army Corps of Engineers, as shown in the accompanying bar graph. Note that the dredging didn’t end until December 3rd, four and one half months after the well was capped!

So Gov’nor, how’re your gold plated sand berms working out for you?

Almost 20 million cubic yards of sand were dug up and transported. Based on the reported $251 million spent on this project, that works out to roughly $13/cu yard.
After digging and transporting 20 million cubic yards of muddy sand, only 16 miles (at most) of berms were ultimately built. These $16 million/mile structures are crumbling as we speak.

By the end of 2010 the sand berms had generated enormous interest, criticism and even satire, as reflected in national coverage by MSNBC, NPR, The New York Times, Time Magazine, The Wall Street Journal, and others. A June 8 article by David Biello in Scientific American is a good example. While researching this post I was amused to discover that our poor little sand barriers even garnered a page in Wikipedia!

By far the most detailed, informative and objective description of the sand berm saga was a working paper number 8 (updated in January 2011) that was prepared by the staff of the now defunct Oil Spill Commission appointed by the President and chaired by Bill Riley and Bob Graham.

These references are all getting dated, however. Here’s a quote from Burdeau’s article that updates the story:

Nathaniel Plant, an oceanographer with the U.S. Geological Survey, has been monitoring the berms built near the Chandeleur Islands and said they have been breaking apart after storms.

“New holes have been breached,” he said. “If they continue (to break apart) at this rate, more than half has disappeared on two northern (berm) sites, another year could easily take the rest of it.”

I’m ending this piece with a quote from a colleague who shares my concern, not just about the waste and lost opportunity of this project, but about what it implies for the future of coastal restoration:

The evidence shows that the Governor’s berm project was never a viable way to block the flow of oil. Coastal scientists in Louisiana, both in state agencies and universities, were intimidated about speaking up, although a few did so, notably the late Dr. Greg Stone at LSU. It’s fortunate that the U.S. Geological Survey is assessing the berms, because the Governor cannot shut them down or cut off their funding (although his allies in Congress may well try to do so.)

The admittedly small community of scientifically literate people in federal and state agencies, universities, and the media all know that the berm project was a sham. The fact that the same state officials who hatched and promoted the sand berm project are now promoting a new “Water Institute” to guide state coastal science is an added cause for concern.

*Founding Editor

**In Macondo’s case, America’s largest deltaic fan got besotted.

***On June 1, 2010 Governor Jindal’s coastal advisor reported that the sand berm barriers were proposed by Dutchmen at the Deltares research institute and Van Oord, one of the leading dredging and marine contractors in the world. No one has stepped up to claim authorship, however.

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  2. Even a child building a sand castle with a red plastic bucket at the surf line understands their work of art will wash away when the next 3 inch wave crashes into it.

  3. Does anyone know what happened to the 50 million gallons of unaccounted for ‘residual oil’?

    • Ezra-
      It’s important to recognize that all the metrics used to characterize the blowout are crude estimates (pun intended). Fifty million gals is about 1.2 million barrels, which is almost a quarter of the 4.9 million barrel figure being used by the feds to calculate the fine under the Clean Water Act. Residual oil is presumably what remains after estimates of oil collected, burned, chemically dispersed, metabolized by bacteria, oxidized and buried somewhere are subtracted from the total. These metrics all have large error bars so I’m not the least bit surprised that so much oil is unaccounted for.
      Remember that the Gulf is not exactly virginal when it comes to hydrocarbons from natural seeps, spills from ships, pipeline ruptures, blowouts and input from the Mississippi River.

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