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February 2013 Coastal Scuttlebutt

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FEBRUARY THIRTEENTH

Big River Works pushed by America’s Wetland Foundation

R. King Milling, Director of the America's Wetland Foundation

The Advocate carried an op/ed column on February 2nd on the need to look upriver for help with saving south Louisiana. The column was based largely on opinions expressed by R. King Milling, Chairman of the Board of the America’s Wetland Foundation, which is sponsoring the so-called  “Big River Works” to ally with upstream economic and political interests.

Mr. Milling argues forcefully for the need to incorporate the entire Mississippi River watershed and its combined economic interests in the attempt to save what’s left of the southernmost Louisiana portion of the river system…what I call America’s Delta.

The need to look upriver for political support for Louisiana’s coastal crises is a truism. For far too long the deterioration of south Louisiana has been viewed as a regional problem in a vacuum, rather than a watershed phenomenon that connects with issues far upstream and that needs political support far beyond the meager political resources of our state. I consider myself a friend and colleague of King Milling and I generally concur with his remarks as quoted in this column and the series of upriver meetings is a positive step, although much depends on the meeting agendas and who leads the discussions.

On the other hand I’m far more outspoken than King and he omitted some of the obvious reasons for our desperate need for outside help. These issues include gulf hypoxia caused by nitrogen fertilizer from Iowa…which is not even mentioned in the column.

For the last four years Governor Jindal and key members of our delegation have been sticking a collective partisan finger in the eye of the president and his cabinet members, for example criticizing policy decisions on the BP blowout, denying the reality of climate change and insulting those who understand what’s at stake. The most blatant recent example is Rep. Steve Scalise, who was quoted in this article in The Advocate by Jordan Blum about the possibility that Louisianan Jim Bernhard may be nominated to replace outgoing DOE secretary Steven Chu.

Scalise, who obviously knows almost nothing about energy, called Chu, an internationally recognized Nobel laureate energy authority as “one of the worst energy secretaries ever.” Without a basic change in our political tone, I doubt that we’ll ever achieve the support we’ll need to save the coast, with or without the Big River Works.

  FEBRUARY TWELTH

Ivor van Heerden, Ph.D. (Photo from The Advocate)

Ivor van Heerden finally vindicated

Following the passage of Hurricane Katrina, while the devastation of New Orleans was still unfolding, a small independent team of coastal physical scientists with specific expertise on the hydrologic impacts of hurricanes, traveled to New Orleans on their own initiative to investigate the cause(s) of the levee failures that took about 1,300 lives. The Corps of Engineers subsequently carried out its own forensic investigation, concluding (erroneously) that the failures resulted from hurricane surge levels higher than the design capacity of the levees. The corps concluded that the levee failures were caused by overtopping, rather than undermining.

Ivor van Heerden, Ph.D., was a member of the independent team and a long term coastal researcher with LSU. During the succeeding months and years after 2005 Dr. van Heerden became a poster child critic of the corps, even co-writing a 2006 book about what turned out to be a man-made disaster, resulting from shoddy levee construction.

During this time the whistle blowing scientist became something of a pariah at LSU, which is a conservative academic institution extremely wary of controversy.  In April 2009 Ivor was informed that his employment contract with the LSU Department of Engineering would not be renewed, summarily ending his research career.

Subsequently Dr. van Heerden sued David Constant, former interim dean of LSU’s college of engineering and the University Board of Supervisors, alleging that he had been terminated because the university was afraid that his criticism of the corps would jeopardize future research contracts with that agency. Until yesterday this suit had been wending its way through the litigation process. Today Bill Lodge reported in today’sThe Advocate that after three years of deliberation a judge has agreed to an out of court settlement between van Heerden and LSU, essentially agreeing that LSU’s abrupt cessation of the employment contract was carried out in retribution for van Heerden’s criticism of the Corps of Engineers.

Jim Engster interviewed Dr. van Heerden on his radio show on WRKF-FM 89.3. Listen to the podcast of the interview here.

Happy Mardi Gras and congratulations, Ivor; justice appears to have been served.

 FEBRUARY ELEVENTH

Pipes ready to convey sediments

Creating marshes via pipeline

The Advocate published an article from The Daily Comet by Xerxes Wilson on the subject of pipeline conveyance to recreate coastal marshes. The subject of dredging and pumping sediments, either from local (unsustainable) sources or from the river bed, has been in the news lately because at least two projects are currently underway to create conveyance corridors, lay pipelines and install diesel pumps to push a slurry of water, sand and silt from a sediment source as an alternative to massive river diversion projects.

I support pipeline conveyance under certain circumstances but this technique will never fill in the vast portions of Terrebonne and Lafourche Parishes that have been transformed from marshes to open water. Two important points are more-or-less buried between the lines of the article.

First, marshes recreated outside existing levees from dredged and pumped sediments are the primary means of mitigation for the enormous damages being incurred within new levee systems and cutting corners is common. South Lafourche levee director Windell Curole acknowledged that these marshes are more less done ‘on the cheap,’ with respect to sediment sources. Here’s a quote:

Curole said careful choice of location to reduce wave action is important. He also said doing away with some of the more technical aspects of marsh creation like containment banks and carrying material from afar can drive down the cost of creating wetlands locally.

Second, when push comes to shove, coastal protection, i.e., expensive, environmentally damaging and unsustainable sea walls are favored over coastal restoration. Here’s a quote:

Terrebonne Levee Director Reggie Dupre’ acknowledged that when recreated marshes are considered infeasible the policy switches from coastal restoration to coastal protection, i.e., sea walls, which are popular but environmentally damaging, expensive and unsustainable. Here’s a quote: 

Dupre said the distance required by such a pipeline means it likely won’t be a solution for the entire parish.

“There is only so far you can get with these,” Dupre said. “In Terrebonne, the furthest you are going to get is the Houma Navigational Canal. That is still going to be very difficult.”

Because of this, the district must focus more on outright protection measures, Dupre said.

FEBRUARY TENTH

CRCL has sunny view of coastal progress

CRCL Executive Director Steven Peyronnin, Suzanne and Jimmy Broadwell, and CRCL Board of Directors Chairman Walter Gundlach at a recent reception for CRCL at Tranquility Plantation in Slidell

Today’s The Advocate carried a short interview by Amy Wold with Stephen Peyronnin, Executive Director of the Coalition to Restore Coastal Louisiana (CRCL), a 25 year old community outreach organization established to build grass roots support for coastal restoration. Peyronnin succeeded short term director Dr. Mark Ford, who had succeeded the Coalition’s longest and best known director, Mark Davis.

Under Davis’ leadership CRCL developed a reputation for independence, objectivity, ecumenism and candor in an intensely political setting. One never got the feeling that the positions of CRCL were being swayed by state politics. Sadly, in my opinion, the organization has lost some of its former luster.

I was struck by the curiously optimistic tone of Peyronnin’s responses to questions about coastal progress, especially given the fact that no truly large-scale coastal projects have been constructed during the Coalition’s existence. His answers reminded me of how Gov. Jindal’s assistant Garret Graves may have responded. They were perfunctory, politically correct and overly sanguine about the future of south Louisiana.

On the other hand Ms. Wold chose not to ask tough questions. For example, she didn’t ask Peyronnin’s view of the highly controversial Morganza to the Gulf project, or his thoughts about the climate change deniers who dominate state government.

It’s high time for coastal realism.

FEBRUARY NINTH

Garret Graves

Jindal’s advisor (and David Vitter) rail on the corps

Bruce Alpert reported yesterday in NOLA.com on a Thursday hearing of the Senate Committee on the Environment and Public Works during which Governor Jindal’s chief coastal advisor Garret Graves described the Corps of Engineers as being in a dysfunctional state, using colorful terms like ‘total disaster’ and ‘rogue attorneys’ in his prepared statement. Mr. Graves was on familiar turf and in front of a friendly audience. He was speaking to a committee co-chaired by his former boss, Senator David Vitter, who never misses a chance to beat up on the corps.

During the meeting Graves effectively choreographed his remarks with those of Vitter, a man to whom he seems almost as loyal as he is to his current boss. Here’s the opening paragraph in Alpert’s article:

The chair of Louisiana’s coastal Protection and Restoration Authority said Thursday that the Army Corps of Engineers, aside for its post-Katrina hurricane protection upgrades, is a “complete disaster.” 

“An outdated and inefficient project process, budget cuts, lack of accountability, rogue attorneys, and the rise of the bureaucratic morass has related the once-exemplary corps to an entity incapable of progress,” said Garret Graves in testimony prepared for Thursday’s Senate Environment and Public Works Committee hearing.

Jordan Blum penned an article on the same subject in today’s The Advocate. Here’s an intriguing quote about the corps’ philosophy about levees from our junior senator:

“The corps ignores mandates when it chooses to,” Vitter said, arguing that too often the corps operates with the “unspoken” guideline that the “safest levee is one that never gets built.”

It should be noted that among the many complaints about the corps is the use of a technique known as the Modified Charleston Method (MCM), to determine the level of mitigation needed for wetland damage done by a project that needs permitting. Senator Vitter and others complain that MCM precludes important economic development projects by raising the cost of acquiring a 404 permit.

Insiders familiar with wetlands permitting assure me that MCM is in fact a step in the right direction, being closer to a realistic appraisal of how much wetland damage is inflicted by specific permitted projects. In other words, Vitter and Graves are endorsing less rigorous standards and implicitly more coastal damage.

FEBRUARY EIGHTH

Beach nourishment…benefit or boondoggle?

Redistributing sand on barrier beaches. Photo from NPR

Jennifer Ludden reported on Jan 30 on NPR’s Morning Edition about the ongoing long-term controversy over the practice by the Corps of Engineers of pumping offshore sand onto barrier beaches along the east coast – in the face of accelerating sea level rise. This practice is quite expensive but because it absorbs storm energy it’s typically justified on the benefit of preventing catastrophe.

The Obama administration has responded to the arguments of deficit hawks and has advocated for the reduction of the current federal 65% cost share, putting more burden on the local beneficiaries. Meanwhile, our very own Senator David Vitter, the new ranking GOP member of the Senate Committee on the Environment and Public Works, wants the Corps of Engineers to build such projects faster and cheaper.

Here are some cautionary quotes from the article:

“This is a particularly silly form of disaster relief,” says Eli Lehrer of the libertarian R Street Institute. He’s also co-founder of SmarterSafer, a Washington, D.C., coalition of environmental groups and budget watchdogs.

Some call beach refurbishment “welfare for the rich,” and others say it’s necessary for local communities.

“Beach renourishment creates a false sense of security that tends to induce development in the very areas where it’s most likely to be destroyed by nature’s worst,” he says.

In other words, create a wide swath of sand, and people will build there — even if it would otherwise be deemed folly. Lehrer says replenishing remote barrier islands is the most egregious waste of taxpayer money. For a tourism-dependent place like Virginia Beach, he concedes it makes economic sense for that particular town.

“If it’s going to be paid for with public dollars at all, those public dollars ought to be collected very much at the local level,” he says.

FEBRUARY SEVENTH

Forget the technological optimists; recoverable oil and gas is finite after all

Graphic from Slate.com

The short term abundance of natural gas from fracking has produced a mythology among many Americans that technology will out and that we no longer have to worry about peak oil. Raymond T. Pierrehumbert wrote an important and eye-opening report in Slate.com in which he described the results of the annual December meeting of the American Geophysical Union in San Francisco in which the future of oil at current rates of hydrocarbon production was discussed by 20,000 sober scientists. Here’s a quote:

There are certainly huge amounts of oil locked up in shale formations worldwide. In the United States alone, the Bakken and Eagle Ford shales contain up to 700 billion barrels, and the Green River shale under Colorado, Wyoming, and Utah has a whopping 2 trillion barrels. However, only a tiny fraction of this total is recoverable. For Bakken (in Montana and North Dakota) and Eagle Ford (in Texas), which account for most of the current surge in U.S. oil production, the estimated recoverable fraction ranges from 1 to 2 percent.

As climate change looms ever more threatening Pierrehumbert describes society as being at a crossroads. We can either acknowledge the finite nature of liquid hydrocarbons and aggressively pursue the transition to renewable energy or be lulled into waiting until the oil is gone, coal is our only recourse and global temperature is irreversibly high.

Read this article if you care about the coast!

 FEBRUARY SIXTH

Corps releases report on $14 billion post-Katrina storm risk reduction

In today’s The Advocate Amy Wold reported that the Corps of Engineers just released the first part of a lengthy two part report describing in great detail the costs and benefits of the nearly complete Hurricane Storm Damage Risk Reduction System (HSDRRS) project that was designed to provide some measure of ‘protection’ for southeast Louisiana against a so-called 100 year storm, which has a 1% likelihood of occurring during any given year.

One of the major monetary and environmental costs of this $14 billion project must have been obtaining and moving clay soils for levee construction and/or elevation. Nevertheless, in an admittedly cursory review of the report I couldn’t find either the volume or the cost of the clay used. Here are key quotes from Wold’s article that refer to this issue:

Impacts from the construction include loss of farmland soils in areas where the corps used soil to build up levees, short-term impacts from extra construction traffic and longer-term issues of road damage from that traffic.

About 1,600 acres of wetlands and 3,500 acres of bottomland hardwood areas were directly affected by the system’s construction and borrow sites, where dirt was excavated to build levees, the report says, but much of that will be mitigated by creating or restoring other wetlands and forest areas.

On the other hand I know for certain that no attempt was ever made to use the stockpile of spent bauxite and red mud stored upstream, rather than dredging holes in the delta. Here are three posts that I wrote on this subject in September 2009: part one on 9/14/09: part two on 9/17/09: and part three on 9/23/09.

Shame on the corps for passing up a huge potential opportunity.

FEBRUARY FIFTH

Photo from NPR's The Diane Rheme Show.

Nature advises Obama to approve Keystone XL pipeline!

On February 1st Will Oremus reported in Slate.com that the highly respected British Journal Nature is defying the mainstream environmental groups in recommending that the Obama administration approve the highly controversial Keystone XL pipeline. This is the project proposed to carry heavy oil from Canadian tar sands to Oklahoma and Texas, to be refined and shipped to China and elsewhere.

I must say that I’m impressed with the arguments presented.

This morning Diane Rheme interviewed three authorities on the pipeline, which is the best discussion I’ve heard so far on the project. Her guests included: Michael Brune, executive director of the Sierra Club; Matthew Koch, vice president of the Institute for 21st Century Energy, U.S. Chamber of Commerce; and Coral Davenport, energy and environment correspondent for National Journal.

Brune’s description of this boondoggle project (his term), are disconcerting but nevertheless I agreed with Davenport’s assessment that the president will make the political decision of ultimately approving the project. She thinks he will take a much more important and difficult political stand by backing new EPA restrictive rules on coal-fired power generation. I was also heartened to hear that former Senator John Kerry, our new Secretary of State, is very knowledgeable about climate change and is a strong supporter of meaningful action.

Finally, I was surprised that none of the guests mentioned the term net energy to describe how much usable energy remains after the tar sand oil is mined, piped and refined and the environmental damage is partially repaired.

 FEBRUARY FOURTH

My oyster friend Mike Voisin passes away

Mike Voisin talking recently with a few of his long term oyster buddies Corky Perret, Al Sunseri and Bobby Savoie (photo from Louisiana Seafood News).

Michsel C. Voisin, CEO of Motivated Seafood in Houma, passed away on February 2 at the tender age of 60. Mike and I shared a long term common interest in oysters as a keystone component of coastal Louisiana, as well as a commercial commodity.

I came to Louisiana 38 years ago from graduate school as something of an academic oyster authority. Mike Voisin came here from California the same year, where he began a highly successful career as a commercial oyster grower and dealer. Between the years 1992 and 2005 or so I had cause to communicate with Mike on an irregular basis on policy issues of oysters and coastal restoration.

Mike was the most influential oysterman in Louisiana and perhaps the most knowledgeable of the many folks I’ve met in the oyster business. He and I shared many common interests and I will very much miss conversations with Mike Voisin, with whom I occasionally disagreed but for whom I had the highest respect.

A warm and well deserved tribute to Mike was posted in Louisiana Seafood News.com on February 2, which also includes the schedule of his wake and funeral near Houma. Farewell, my friend.

FEBRUARY THIRD

Coastal sediments on Superbowl Sunday

I penned the following brief letter to the editor of NOLA.com apropos of today’s big game and our sinking coast, hoping it would be published today…but no. Anyhow, here it is:

Noted Tulane geographer Richard Campanella wrote the following quote in an insightful new essay on the huge sediment deficit now facing south Louisiana:

Scientists at Louisiana State University have estimated that, even with modest estimates of soil subsidence and sea level rise and generous approximations of future sediment supply, the(Mississippi River) Delta will run a nearly insurmountable sediment deficit of 1 to 5 billion tons…

Some of the 110 million fans who will view Superbowl XLVII within the Mercedes Benz Superdome might be interested to learn that this cavernous edifice would theoretically hold five million tons of sand, silt and clay, the kinds of sediments needed to replenish our beloved Delta. Although that volume sounds impressive, Southeast Louisiana would currently need from 200 to 500 Superdome equivalents (SDEs) annually, just to stay above the Gulf of Mexico.

Enjoy the game. I’m rooting for the Ravens from my home town, Charm City, Maryland.

Post script: It turns out that The Times-Picayune did in fact publish my letter in a special print edition about the Superbowl.

FEBRUARY SECOND

Dr. Chu departs as head 0f DOE 

Nobel laureate physicist Steven Chu, Ph.D.

Tom Zeller, Jr. posted an article in HuffPost yesterday about the unfortunate decision by Steven Chu, Ph.D., to step down as the brightest and most effective ever secretary of the U.S. Department of Energy. Chu’s departure is being mourned by the scientific and environmental community and celebrated by climate change deniers and industry flacks and hacks.

Here’s a quote about and from the greenies:

“Secretary Chu has led the Energy Department at a time when our nation made the single largest investment ever in clean energy and doubled our use of renewables,” said Gene Karpinski, the president of the League of Conservation Voters, in a prepared statement. “He has proven himself to be one of the world’s greatest scientists and an ally in the fight against climate change.”

Matthew Stepp, a senior policy analyst with the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation, echoed that sentiment in an email Friday afternoon. “While there is still significant work to be done, no one can deny that the Department of Energy is better equipped today to develop and commercialize breakthrough clean energy technologies than four years ago. The Secretary should be applauded for continuing and strengthening the long American legacy of leadership in developing world-leading technologies which now includes shale gas, advanced solar, wind energy, and next-generation batteries.”

Here are quotes about and from the ignorami, including our very own  Steve Scalise, who once again made an idiot of himself and our state:

Chu’s term at DOE was often tumultuous, however, and he was a frequent target of criticism from Republicans in Congress or their patrons among legacy fossil fuel interests, business groups, climate skeptics or free-market think tanks — many of whom saw Chu as the embodiment of what they consider the administration’s wasteful support of expensive or underperforming energy technologies.

Republicans grilled Chu last year as part of a lengthy investigation into Solyndra and the $535 million loan guarantee it received from the Department of Energy.

“This is disgusting. This happened under your nose,” Steve Scalise, a Louisiana Republican, told Chu at a House Energy and Commerce committee hearing in late 2011. “I’ll hope you’ll go back to your agency and have some heads roll.”

FEBRUARY FIRST

Bob Marshall will continue writing, now for The Lens

Bob Marshall usefully employed again…by The Lens

Hearty congratulations are in order for Bob Marshall…and his fellow coastal advocates have a rare occasion to celebrate. The Lens announced that Mr. Marshall has joined its New Orleans based staff to cover the environment.

This veteran Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter and frank critic of short-sighted environmental policy has retired from a thirty year career at The Times-Picayune. Now he will continue to comment on environmental, primarily coastal issues, but now for a somewhat more obstreporous and less constrained media outlet.

Whether you’re already familiar with Bob’s prose, or if you’re unfamiliar with his politically incorrect, frank and knowledgeable coastal commentary, read his inaugural article for The Lens on the touchy subject of the allocation of limited coastal restoration funds.

We can expect many more frank and insightful commentaries during the coming months and years, as the coast continues to sink. Go Bob, go.

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