October 2013 Coastal Scuttlebutt
OCTOBER TWENTY-NINTH, THIRTIETH and THIRTY-FIRST
Media buys into wolf in sheep’s clothing project
The New Orleans Advocate published an editorial on October 29 that reflects an apparent media buy-in to the most expensive and damaging coastal ‘protection’ project currently on the drawing board. Morganza-to-the-Gulf (MTTG) is one of the water projects that will doubtless be re-authorized under the draft 2014 Water Resources Development Act (WRDA). WRDA forms the basis for most publically funded projects undertaken by the Corps of Engineers (COE).
Here’s a candid description of the project by an anonymous* colleague who is highly credible on coastal policy and an authority on corps policy:
The worst one (WRDA project) coming down the line that I know of is the 80 mile (98 mile) Morganza mega-levee along the Gulf coast in Louisiana with a marginally favorable b/c ratio and an original estimated original cost of $800 million that, on further review, ballooned into $11.7 billion, but by COE legerdemain still retains a favorable b/c ratio, another $10.9 billion in benefits magically discovered. The levee protects a few coastal towns but encloses over 100,000 acres of wetlands then to be ripe for development (exempted even from state coastal review as “fastlands”); to maintain the levee, which will rise over thirty feet into the air, on naturally sinking soils and the most rapid SLR in North America will require major lifts over time and heroic sums in maintenance, ad infinitum.
La has made the funding and construction of this monster its first priority for coastal “restoration” monies, although it loses more wetlands than the state hopes to restore over the next 50 years. But, hey … Never ends, no?
In a rare moment of fiscal sanity the House WRDA dropped it but La is sure to try to put it back in conference.
*Who did not authorize an attribution (I didn’t ask).
OCTOBER TWENTY-FIFTH, TWENTY-SIXTH, TWENTY SEVENTH and TWENTY-EIGHTH
Hurricane Sandy, which bloodied the urban noses of New York City, Long Island and the Jersey Coast a year ago, is currently on record as the second most expensive hurricane to make landfall in the U.S., following Hurricane Katrina in August 2005. In the spirit of lessons learned (or not) about such events the New York Times just posted a podcast on the (embarrassingly dysfunctional) state/federal Katrina recovery effort, which can be compared to recovery from Sandy.
In watching this videoclip I was struck by how quickly I’d forgotten the scale of destruction of Katrina and the clumsy and ineffective program to return citizens to their homes, e.g., the Road Homes Project. One of the obvious takeaway lessons about environmental disasters gained from both Katrina and the BP Blowout is that having federal and state administrations under the control of opposite political parties can make recovery far more problematic. In the case of Sandy, New Jersey storm victims were indeed lucky to have a governor (Cristi) and president (Obama) savvy enough to cooperate.
OCTOBER TWENTY-SECOND, TWENTY-THIRD and TWENTY-FOURTH
Morganza to the Gulf Project will not die
Jordan Blum reported in the Advocate on October 24 that a house committee omitted Louisiana’s favorite coastal ‘protection and restoration’ project from its version of the 2014 Water Resources Development Act (WRDA). The obsolete and poorly conceived project, known as Morganza-to-the-Gulf (MTTG).
This decision will apparently have no long term effect, however because the Senate has already approved a draft WRDA bill that authorizes MTTG (once more) this project. An agreement will be worked out between the house and senate versions of WRDA.
I continue to predict that MTTG will never be completed because the $11 billion price tag is not only technically flawed but unaffordable by either the state or the feds.
Editor’s note: For reasons that I can’t explain the coastal scuttlebutt item that I posted on Monday, October 21 has disappeared from the face of the web.
OCTOBER SEVENTEENTH, EIGHTEENTH and NINETEENTH
Retired Corps official apologized for Katrina damage
My sharp-eyed brother in law Maurice Fox forwarded an interesting account by John Schwartz from the New York Times on October 3 about Lt. Gen. Elvin Regvald “Vald” Heiberg III, a retired former chief engineer and commander of the Corps of Engineers. Unlike many bureaucrats who have overseen coastal policy failures for 200 years but denied personal culpability, in 2007 Heiberg blamed himself for the devastation of Hurricane Katrina in 2005.
During the 1970s then Colonel Heiberg served for a time as district commander of the New Orleans office of the corps while a fierce debate was underway about how to prevent a hurricane surge from entering Lake Pontchartrain and flooding the city from the north.
Two competing plans had been proposed. First was the so-called barrier plan to construct massive control structures at the Rigolets and Pass Menteur to block water from Lake Borne from entering Lake Pontchartrain. A cheaper alternative was to elevate lake front levees, the so-called perimeter Plan. Heiberg favored the barrier plan and until his death on September 27 he faulted himself for not having fought harder for that alternative, which he believed may have prevented the devastation of Hurricane Katrina in 2005.
The late Fred Chatry was the top civilian in the New Orleans district office during the time of the debate and he must have played a key role in the final decision to pull the plug on the barrier plan. Back then I was a member of a team of LSU scientists commissioned by the corps to carry out an environmental impact study of the impact of the barrier structures on Lake Pontchartrain. Our study was peremptorily killed in 1981 before its completion, supposedly after the barrier plan had been abandoned. On the other hand the article implies that the final decision to kill the barrier plan was not made until the mid-eighties. Now I’m intrigued. What say you Al Naomi and Bob Schroeder?
OCTOBER FOURTEENTH, FIFTEENTH and SIXTEENTH
Louisiana isn’t collecting oil and gas severance taxes; no funding is in sight to maintain the new NOLA flood protection system; but we shouldn’t require the energy industry to pay for its coastal damage
A lack of funds has prevented the implementation of a $50 billion master plan to save our coast, which remains on hold as the coast (America’s Delta) washes away.
Official state coastal policy is overseen by the Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority (CPRA), which remains locked in an ongoing dispute with one of its ‘rogue’ members, the Southeast Louisiana Flood Protection Authority-East (SLFPA-E). The issue involves a lawsuit brought by the SLFPA-E against 97 oil and gas companies to force these companies to pay for demonstrable damage to coastal landscape caused by decades of unmitigated energy production.
The official state position, as articulated by Governor Jindal and his spokesman Garret Graves (CPRA chair), is that the lawsuit threatens to jeopardize the ‘friendly’ (I would say cozy) relationship between the oil and gas industry and the coastal restoration program, which, although largely unfunded at present, will (according to this argument) ultimately be paid by federal appropriations, i.e., taxpayers. The argument goes that the lawsuit jeopardizes a ‘partnership’ with big oil, in which Louisiana either forgives or overlooks many billions of bucks worth of damage.
On September 30 Bob Marshall reported in TheLensNOLA.org that the SLFPA-E and the CPRA are in a dispute with the Corps of Engineers over the transfer of ownership of and responsibility for the newly refurbished perimeter flood protection system.
The Advocate carried an AP story by Melinda Deslatte that records from the Louisiana Department of Natural Resources (DNR) show that the agency has not been collecting severance taxes. Meanwhile, the cost of maintaining the new $14 billion flood protection system is far beyond the capability of its local sponsor, the embattled SLFPA-E. If the state succeeds in abrogating this lawsuit we could be passing up funds in the range of tens of billions of dollars…monies that are desperately needed just to operate and maintain existing coastal protection upgrades. Talk about cutting off our noses to spite our faces.
The reminds me of the insanity shown by Tea Party wing nuts of the GOP caucus of the House of Representatives who succeeded in shutting down the federal government for 16 days and almost doomed international trust in the American economy in a vindictive partisan fight against Obamacare. By the way, Senator David Vitter was among 18 solons who voted to let the debt cap go into the red. Good move, David; that would have done a lot for the coast.
OCTOBER TENTH, ELEVENTH, TWELFTH and THIRTEENTH
More on the oil and gas lawsuit; proponents weigh in against all odds
On October 8 Stephanie Grace commented in the Advocate that John Barry, outgoing VP of the Southeast Louisiana Flood Protection Authority-East, intends to continue participating, even if unofficially, in the discussion of the lawsuit brought against 97 oil and gas companies for decades of coastal damage. This despite his abrupt dismissal from the board, as ordered by the governor and carried out loyally by the nominating committee that passed him over for reappointment with a 5-5 vote.
On October 9 WRKF-FM talk show host Jim Engster interviewed Louisiana Public Service Commissioner
Foster Campbell on the dismissal of John Barry from the supposedly independent levee board that brought the lawsuit. So much for independence. As reported on October 8 in the Advocate Commissioner Campbell has formally petitioned the Louisiana Democratic Party to support the lawsuit.
Here are a few quotes from Mr. Campbell on the Engster show:
“John Barry, (is) a decent man who’s not trying to put anyone on the spot…we ought to be proud of him in Louisiana …This is all about fear of the oil companies.”
During his remarks during the interview Campbell said that if the lawsuit lands in court before the regular legislative session meets in April it may survive an attempt to kill it with legislation gutting the levee board’s authority. I have no idea whether or not such timely action is realistic.
On October 7 Jim Engster interviewed former Governor Buddy Roemer, who, in response to a question on the lawsuit called in by yours truly, said, “I’m a big proponent of that action.”
Other noteworthy supporters of the lawsuit include
Lt. General Russel L. Honore, hero of Katrina first responders, who has taken out full page ads in the Advocate on the issue. Wouldn’t it be nice to hear more support from such groups as Restore the Mississippi River Delta?
OCTOBER SEVENTH, EIGHTH and NINTH
Vibrio vulnificus gone wild
A free living estuarine bacterium known as Vibrio vulnificusis is native to warm non-polluted coastal
waters along the northern gulf, where bacterial cells are filtered from the water column by oysters, thus posing an infection risk to consumers of raw bivalves, particularly folks with compromised immune systems. This risk is well known and commercial sea food purveyors in Louisiana, for example, are required to post signs warning about the danger of eating raw oysters to vulnerable patrons.
As an oyster biologist I was surprised to read an article in the October 8 TheDailyBeast.com that Vibrio vulnificus can also cause a grisly human infection via the blood stream, gaining access to the human body not though the gut but through open skin wounds.
The article is not particularly well written and it strikes me as unnecessarily hyperbolic, especially given the huge number of swimmers who inhabit gulf coast beaches and the rarcity of accounts of infected patients. I suspect that the bacterium featured in the article is not an evolved subspecies of the critter that causes gastric distress among raw bar patrons. What say you, Dr. Marilyn Kilgen?*
*Coastal microbiologist at Nicholl’s State University.
OCTOBER FOURTH, FIFTH and SIXTH
Barry bumped from levee board, some thoughts
On October 1 Jeff Adelson reported in The Advocate that John Barry has officially been excluded from continuing his role on the board of the Southeast Louisiana Flood Protection Authority-East (SLFPA-E). This is no surprise, in that after years proving his merit as a team player on coastal issues, in December, 2012 Barry was revealed as the mastermind of the concept of generating a new, potentially multi-billion dollar revenue source by suing the energy industry for coastal damages that could be laid at their doorstep.
Barry had invested his tenure on the board establishing a thoughtful, pragmatic, science-based voice for the interests of the residents of SE Louisiana that garnered great respect among serious coastal advocates. This respect was no match, however, for his having gored the oxen of the most powerful vested interests in Louisiana, Big Oil and Governor Bobby Jindal.
In his article Adelson pointed out that, whereas the new levee boards created during Governor Blanco’s administration were intended to be independent of politics. That was clearly an illusory goal which has subsequently been abandoned by Governor Jindal, who promised to oppose any and all nominees to the board who could support the lawsuit.
I was particularly disheartened to learn that some of my old colleagues on the nominating committee saw fit to vote against both John Barry and Tulane Professor Tor Tornqvist, who would have been a valuable member of the board. This is just another signal that, in terms of Louisiana coastal policy, politics trumps science.
Read John Barry’s letter to the editor published in the Advocate on October 6.
OCTOBER FIRST, SECOND and THIRD
Karen coming inconveniently during the GOP shutdown of government
As I write this an unpredictable tropical storm system, Karen, has arisen in the southern gulf, packing 66 mph winds and currently headed toward the Louisiana/Florida coast, with a weekend landfall likely. Amy Wold reported on the storm in The Advocate.
This poses the very real possibility of an environmental disaster coinciding with the bizarre and ill-timed government shutdown in DC.
The ultimate impact of Karen may involve human causality, in the sense that the gulf water temperature, on which storm energy feeds, has been increased by excess industrial CO2.
Meanwhile the government shutdown is totally contrived issue engineered by bitter opponents of the Affordable Care Act. Congressional budget policy is being held hostage by a minority of ultra conservative congressmen and women, each hell bent on preventing underemployed Americans from obtaining minimal health insurance.
Both the storm and the shutdown involve huge levels of uncertainty, the latter in terms of its impact on various agencies involved with response to coastal emergencies, including FEMA. The shutdown is supported by Louisiana’s GOP delegation, members of whom will be the first to complain if the Obama administration has difficulty responding to another coastal disaster in Louisiana.