03 Jun 2010: Opinion

Under Pressure to Block Oil,
A Rush To Dubious Projects

In response to the widening disaster in the Gulf of Mexico, government officials have approved a plan to intercept the oil by building a 45-mile sand berm. But scientists fear the project is a costly boondoggle that will inflict further environmental damage and do little to keep oil off the coast.

by rob young

Oil continues to gush from the bottom of the Gulf of Mexico, with the U.S. Geological Survey estimating that as many as 28 million gallons of oil have been released into the Gulf, compared to 11 million gallons from the Exxon Valdez spill. BP may not be able to stop the flow until August when the drilling of a relief well is completed. Oil is already hitting the beaches and wetlands of Louisiana and is rapidly approaching Mississippi, Alabama, and the Florida Panhandle. The environmental and economic impacts of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill cannot be overstated: This may become one of the greatest ecological catastrophes in history.

Given the enormity of this environmental disaster, it is understandable that there is tremendous political and societal pressure to stop the flow and clean up the mess. However, in their rush to react to growing public pressure and do something, federal and state officials are waiving scientific review of emergency measures and embracing dubious solutions. Nowhere is this more evident than in the proposal to begin building a long sand berm to prevent oil from reaching wetlands and beaches in Louisiana. The White House has announced that this project is now moving forward, despite serious concerns among coastal scientists, including myself, that it will not be effective in keeping oil from the coast, could do more environmental harm than good, and would be extremely expensive.

Under pressure from Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal and other state and local officials, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers issued an emergency permit on May 27 authorizing the state of Louisiana to construct 45 miles of artificial berm — 300 feet wide at its base and rising six feet out of the gulf — in an
I have yet to speak to a scientist who thinks that the project will be effective.
attempt to protect delta wetlands and barrier islands from the encroaching oil. The state had initially requested permission to build close to 128 miles of barrier, and the Corps of Engineers permit indicates the additional sections may be allowed as the permitted sections are evaluated. Jindal’s argument for building the sand berm, just off existing barrier islands, is simple: It’s better to clean oil off of man-made sand berms than in Louisiana’s wetlands, which teem with fish and wildlife.

While mitigating the environmental damage of this spill is critical, it must be done in a way that wisely utilizes the resources at hand, effectively deals with the problem (e.g., keeping oil out of wetlands), and doesn’t do more harm than good. But the emergency projects currently being proposed by various entities and permitted by the Corps of Engineers — including a plan to build a seawall in front of Dauphin Island, Alabama — have not had sufficient review and design to guarantee that any of the above goals will be met. Indeed, since the Louisiana berm will not be continuous, there is a strong likelihood that oil will flow in through the gaps, then possibly become trapped in wetlands.

In addition to its questionable prospects for success, the Louisiana berm project would be extremely expensive. The application from the state of Louisiana estimated the cost to be about $3.8 million per mile, or about $171 million for the initial 45 miles of the permitted project. In its comments on the state’s application, the U.S. Department of Interior notes that cost estimates for mobilizing sand in the area have already been produced for the planning of future barrier island restoration. Using these numbers, the Interior Department suggests the costs are likely to be closer to $500 million. Thad Allen, the U.S. Coast Guard admiral in charge of the spill cleanup, said Wednesday that BP has agreed to pay for construction of the 45-mile line of sand berms, which he estimated would cost $360 million.

A project that could cost as much as a half-billion dollars should warrant serious review. Yet it has been very difficult to find a public record or details of the proposed project design and how it was vetted. Obviously, there was never any intention to solicit public comment. This may be appropriate in an emergency, but it begs the question: Who designed the project? Have they used the best available science? And will it work as advertised?

The state of Louisiana has a wealth of fine coastal scientists who have been working on the coastal restoration of the Louisiana delta region for decades. Yet those who I have spoken with have indicated that they have
The EPA suggested there is no evidence the project will stop oil from entering marshes and estuaries.
not been consulted on the project. I have yet to speak to a scientist who thinks the project will be effective. The Corps of Engineers gave agencies, such as the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), less than a day to submit comments on the proposal after it was presented to the agencies during a teleconference on May 17. Certainly, the agencies had very little time to scientifically evaluate the potential environmental impacts of such a massive project, but in their brief submissions the agencies expressed major concerns.

The Department of Interior indicated that “we do not think the risks inherent in proceeding without more environmental study and knowledge are acceptable.”

The EPA directly questioned the proposed berm’s effectiveness, suggesting there is no evidence that the project will stop oil from entering the marshes and estuaries because it is constructed only in front of the barrier islands and will not block the inlets and deepwater passes. In addition, EPA questioned whether a project that will take at least 6 to 9 months to build would be completed in time to have any impact on the spill.

As a coastal geologist who studies coastal storm impacts, it is clear to me that this berm, located just offshore of the barrier islands, will also be extremely susceptible to erosion. Indeed, it will begin to erode immediately upon completion. Even a simple understanding of coastal processes leads one to conclude that this sandy berm could disappear within a few months. Coincidently, the U.S. government’s Climate Prediction Center released its forecast for this year’s Atlantic Basin hurricane season on the same day the berm permit was issued. Federal scientists are predicting an incredibly busy season with up to 23 named storms and 8 to 14 hurricanes. Just one of these storms tracking near the proposed berm will wipe it out. At six feet above sea level, the berm will not have the elevation or sand volume to provide significant storm protection. In fact, depending on the track of the storm, it could potentially make the storm surge higher in some areas. The berm also could prevent the flushing of some oil out of the wetlands.

In the end, we have a project that is incredibly expensive. There has been little scientific review. It is questionable if the proposed berm will prevent oil from entering the wetlands it is designed to protect. The structure will
We do need to do something, but we need a better process for deciding what that best something is.
be very short-lived. And there are many potential negative impacts of this structure on the coastal environment that have not been evaluated. Coastal dredging and filling can cause significant damage to marine organisms and local ecosystems as massive amounts of sand are dug up in one location and then deposited on the sea floor in another spot. In addition, building a 45-mile sand berm could alter tidal currents and lead to the erosion of natural barrier islands that protect the Louisiana coast from hurricanes.

Yes, we need to do something, but we need a better process for deciding what that best something is. I hope I’m wrong, but I fear that this permitted berm is not a viable solution.

And the Louisiana berm is not the only example of rushed emergency permitting of a major project. With the oil steadily approaching the Alabama coastline, the Mobile, Ala. district of the Corps of Engineers released an Emergency Public Notice, also on May 27, for a permit application by BP to build a mile-and-a-half-long seawall on Dauphin Island, Alabama to block the oil from reaching the island. The goal of the project is to close off a breach in the barrier island opened by Hurricane Katrina. Now this may be a good idea, but the process gives us no insight into whether it is or isn’t. Again, agencies were given a few hours to comment. The design for the structure was presented hand-drawn on notebook paper and appears to have been pulled together by a local pile-driving company. The plans are not signed or stamped by a licensed engineer. Will it work? Who knows?


The Gulf of Mexico Oil Spill:
An Accident Waiting to Happen

Oil Spill
The oil slick spreading across the Gulf has shattered the notion that offshore drilling had become safe. A close look at the accident shows that lax federal oversight, complacency by BP and the other companies involved, and the complexities of drilling a mile deep all combined to create the perfect environmental storm.
The pressure to respond to this environmental disaster is immense. The agencies feel it. BP feels it. And all federal, state, and local politicians feel it. But the Obama administration must come up with a review process for these emergency permits that ensures that the proposed projects will work, will use resources (dollars, sand, booms) wisely, and will not do more harm than good.

The BP oil spill will be with us for years, not days. In order to move forward in a sensible way, the administration should set up a scientific review panel to vet all proposals for large-scale coastal engineering in response to the spill. The panel should include experts from science agencies like the U.S. Geological Survey and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, as well as leading academics. The review panel should still be charged with responding very quickly to permit applications, but the public needs to have a higher level of confidence that the best science is being brought to bear on this problem. At the moment, that is simply not the case.

POSTED ON 03 Jun 2010 IN Biodiversity Energy Forests Oceans Policy & Politics Pollution & Health Central & South America North America 


500 million is not "incredibly expensive", it's pocket change. And if BP is paying for it, it can cost 5 billion as far as I'm concerned.

Posted by jim collins on 03 Jun 2010

"Yes, we have to do something, but we need a better process." That process, it would seem to me, is the emergency planning process -- one in which according to Gov. Jindall, the use of sand barriers was approved by the Coast Guard and others. That is where you and those with whom you spoke (non-attributed) in Louisiana should have weighed in. Did you? In the meantime, the people of the area are frustated that they have plan -- a pre-approved plan - that is now being blocked from on high by the never-failing coterie of second-guessers.

Posted by Joan Chevalier on 03 Jun 2010

I suppose the glass half full crowd would suggest the project at least puts people to work and provides a feeling of doing something about the problem, regardless of it's longer term success.

However, I take your point about the potential to trap oil.

Posted by tony hunter on 03 Jun 2010

Rob this is an excellent article, which does an amazing job of pointing out the dubious feasibility and potential benefits, if any, of coastal protection developments like the proposed 45 miles of artificial berm.

Expensive, environmentally degrading coastal protection projects, with little or no provided benefit, are often instigated without environmental impact assessment or public objection under proposed emergency response situations.

We all appreciate the need to react swiftly to this horrible environmental disaster. Hopefully the drastic situation in the Gulf will shed light on how unprepared our society is for dealing with severe environmental catastrophes. I also appreciate your willing to expose such a costly coastal protection measure that makes little sense as a response to BP’s oil spill.

Adam at ASR

Posted by AdamatASR on 03 Jun 2010

No one was given a chance to chime in during the application process. That is the whole point of my article. We do not have an effective emergency permit approval process. I don't want to stop everything from happening, I am simply suggesting we should do things that we all know will work to stop the oil from getting into the wetlands.

Posted by Rob Young on 03 Jun 2010

You make this sound as though the only chance for comment is now — after the fact, when an emergency plan is being implemented. This is a plan that was in place prior to the disaster. If there is a fault, then it would lie in the vetting process PRIOR to the disaster. Communities should be able to act expediously on plans that are pre-approved. But, by all means, let us nickel dime a region of our country that has been nickel and dimed to death. As I understand it, they will try ONE, one of these proposed berms and evaluate it. If the emergency plans for the area don't include scientific review before they are put in place, then that needs to be addressed. You provide NO EVIDENCE of that. In the meantime, you second guess from a distance a plan that was preapproved — that is proceeding at snail's base and in an entirely truncated version of the request.

Posted by Joan Chevalier on 03 Jun 2010

I have been posting comments advocating a huge works program that includes diversionary canals for the flooding that will be sure to increase in many coastal areas. I hadn't considered oil spills and what to do about them. I've seen exhibits that show how oil can be sopped up with certain kinds of straw, to which it becomes attached and which can be easily retrieved. If this can work, we should have an emergency readiness program in all relevant coastal areas. We should also be ready to do huge skimming operations wherever and whenever needed. Stored sandbags to guard against floods might also protect beaches from oil.

Posted by Trevor Burrowes on 03 Jun 2010

Gee Rob, we here in Louisiana are So glad to hear that we should Wait for all you "great minds" to study our problem further! While we Wait ...our wildlife is dying, our way of life is dying, our wetlands are dying, our coast is dying!! This mess has happened before...SO.. just what have all you good environmentalists been doing besides writing books and articles?

Posted by Barbara Gilleo on 04 Jun 2010


Is the USACE dredge available? How long will it take to get a dredge on site? How many dredges will be working at the same time? 45 miles of berm in 9 months sounds like a pipe dream. Without shore protection the berms will be largely gone before they are finished.

Posted by Andrew on 04 Jun 2010

Barbara: I understand your frustration. I did not suggest that we "great minds" study the problem further. I suggested that a review/consultation system be established so that ideas can be brought to light and evaluated quickly. The state of Louisiana has many fine coastal scientists. They need to be more heavily involved in finding solutions. Just doing "something" simply to be doing something doesn't make sense. Scientists are not your enemy. Just because I don't live in Louisiana doesn't mean I don't care.


Posted by Rob Young on 04 Jun 2010

I sympathize with you Rob, and your critics in this thread.

I am very concerned about the emergency plans, but I am more concerned about the damage to interior wetlands.

Your article is one of many criticizing the process, and raising a number of legitimate and important issues.

My charge for you and the scientific community: pair up with engineers and come up with a palette of alternatives. We need a plan down here. We need one now. Please. Please.

This is what the internet is for: Open source collaboration to solve complex problems.

Posted by Alan Williams on 04 Jun 2010

I will make the offer today to the Governor's office.

Posted by Rob Young on 04 Jun 2010

"This may become one of the greatest ecological catastrophes in history?" Unfortunately, I'd say this mess already ranks as the #1 ecological disaster of all time. Here in Alabama, dump trucks are already hauling loads of sand to fill a protective wall, and building a berm to keep potential oil from reaching shore. So, this sand berm idea is already being put into effect.

Posted by Dean Cortez on 05 Jun 2010

Sorry to be the bearer of bad tidings. There is no way to protect the wetlands: the oil will go around the berm, through it, behind it. Wetlands are highly susceptible to minor alteration; physical, chemical, geological. Scientists spend entire careers measuring impacts to wetlands in parts per billion. Dredging is not going to help. Filling is not going to help.

We have a hundred years of experience in destroying wetlands with civil works projects. The cost of losing our wetlands and the services they provide should have been priced into a gallon of oil at the wellhead long, long ago. Not only has oil never been accurately costed, but regulations have failed to capture the precaution necessary to insure we would never be having these foolish conversations about limiting unlimited liability. Listen to Congressman Don Young, R-Alaska: it's a natural event. Listen to Rush Limbaugh and Sarah Palin: it's the fault of environmentalists. What worries me is not the globs of oil we see, but the ocean of oil suspended in the water column that will move toward shore with storms. Not even Caesar would have been so foolish to imagine he could stop the power of the sea. We are where we are, because of hubris and greed. To the question of what are we going to do? I don't know how to answer that, when nature bats last.

Posted by Alan Farago on 05 Jun 2010

The cost you speak of are insignificant in the scheme of the cost to clean and restore the environment if the oil encroaches on the wetlands.

The cost you speak of are as nothing compared to the money being thrown at "bail-outs" of industries that don't need to be bailed-out.

The scarce resources you speak of are sand dredges that are not being used for anything else in the clean up "efforts".

The problem we have is a FAILURE of leadership. The problem we have is FORM over SUBSTANCE.

I agree that in non-emergency situations we need to move slowly and thoughtfully on decisions that affect the environment. This is an emergency and our leaders have failed to understand it and therefore have failed to act effectively.

Posted by Hal Gandy on 06 Jun 2010

Politics and Science... like oil and water... never a pretty result.

Posted by larry on 07 Jun 2010

Hi Hal,

As resident and scientist in Louisiana's coastal zone, I think that you are being dishonest in ignoring the many local scientists that see the berm project as least harmful option given the current situation. Just because you haven't bothered to talk to them, doesn't mean they don't exist.

For me, I understand that their are uncertainties and risks in this project, but there is no
uncertainty in the alternative option of letting BP's oil destroy our wetlands. Already, thousands of acres of our coastal wetlands have been impact by BP's oil. This is an observed fact on ground, not the speculation of some remote 'scientific' expert.

The people against this project have two basic arguments:

1) The sand is a limited resource and needs to be saved for other restoration projects
2) The berm will not be a permanent structure.

The two counterpoints are simple:

1) If the oil destroys our coastal wetlands to a point beyond restoration (many informed scientists say this a very real possibility) then what is the point of saving the sand for future restoration projects. Why save resources to restore that which is non-restorable?
2) The berm is not meant to be a permanent structure and it will erode away during the next tropical storm. In the process, the berm will i) absorb oil that would otherwise be pushed into our wetlands and our neighborhoods, and ii) will attenuate the surge energy. In other words, if it keeps oil out of my living room during the next 6 months then that is good enough for me.

Now, I know you don't have to worry about oil inundating your living room, so these are probably moot points to you. But, from my perspective, if you don't have a good plan to
keep oil out of my living room, then why should I bother to care about your 'scientific' opinion?

Posted by Ezra on 09 Jun 2010

Ezra: Thanks for your comments. I would add to your basic arguments that we have against the project.

1) No plan has been proposed to suggest how we keep the oil out of the wetlands through the many significant gaps in the berm. Maybe the Governor's office has plans, but we haven't seen them.

2) Most of us feel the structure will be so ephemeral that it will not work as planned, as a continuous barrier. It will not keep oil out of "your living room" for the next 6 months. It will take longer than that to build. And, if it absorbs oil and then is spread across the estuary during a storm, what is the fate of that oil? Will there be clean-up crews on these things constantly?

3) Finally, I worry about the process as we move forward. An ambitious plan like this should involve a few more ideas from a few more people during its conception, have a few more details, and have better scientific review. This can still be done quickly. This is needed because we want to do the best job of keeping oil out of your living room.


Posted by Rob Young on 10 Jun 2010

Ok, I know you, and others are having trouble getting through to those 'running' this cleanup effort. I volunteer at a local wildlife rescue that has worked over 60 oil spills along the gulf including that very area. Even a couple spills involving pelicans in that area earlier this year. And they are not being allowed to help, despite all their experience, equipment, and personnel.

But, has anyone tried to see if any plans to rebuild barrier islands could be used in the plans to build the berms?

Posted by Linda Foss on 14 Jun 2010

We're paying for 30 years of a wrecking crew dismantling the good collective organizing -- government agencies and scientists and experts and educators and service providers and watchdogs -- that this nation is in dire need of now that the corporation calls the shots and has been for years.

We have seen a complete turning away from participatory self-governance the past 30 years. My young students have given up on getting involved in politics. Older people are burned out. Biologists in the field and studying ecosystems believe they are akin to hospice workers. Powerlessness is a disease infecting every stratum of this country. We are an embarrassment.

I have been a journalist, activist, teacher, sustainability advisor, and in the trenches with farming and agriculture groups for 30 years. In the Pacific Northwest, US Southwest, Mexico, Central America, Viet Nam. I can say hands down that we have incompetent people in politics, to be sure, and this all trickles down to the lack of understanding how to handle disasters, plans, and fix-ups. But the people, us, citizens, have been gutting education, throwing our time at the addictions of consumptions, consumerism and entertainment. We’ve put these creeps on pedestals – millionaires. We have to demand change by being the change and marching on city hall and state capitol buildings.

The people and the environment in the Gulf are pawns now in a national spasm of widget watching, Fox and CBS News sideliner viewing, and collective mass delusion – we have no concept of how big the spill is, how big the larger issues are, what the entire mess will do in six months, six years.

Wrest control of your state from these incompetents. Get the faculties and scientists out there now. Planners from around the country can help get a response army and navy into gear. Your governor's attorney general should have a truck load of civil action suits already drawn up. Your local and state policing authorities should have already seized control of the management of BP. The FBI should have been deployed to take over the financial and day-to-day planning of BP.

Should have, could have, must have. This isn't solving your problems, to be sure. Some of us actually are pushing for action.

Hell, in Spokane, we have Dispatches from a Disaster covering the BP terror. A film is now being edited by one Spokane man who went to the Gulf weeks ago. I have people on my radio show weekly now talking about their work in the Gulf.



We want change, and we want that Gulf fixed. Science and academics have been too divorced from the daily pain and strain of community needs, political action and just the heavy lift of moving forward with the expertise they have to help fix this sort of mess. Get back with us, the people who support your schools, your educations, your causes. Be political. Speak out.

Learn how to talk to the average person. Get media savvy. Get to the boardrooms and put pressure on those impediments to democracy and clear science.

Posted by Paul Haeder on 30 Jun 2010

Comments have been closed on this feature.
Rob Young is professor of coastal ecology at Western Carolina University and director of the Program for the Study of Developed Shorelines. He is co-author, with Orrin Pilkey, of The Rising Sea. He also writes for the website CoastalCare.org. In a previous article for Yale Environment 360, he wrote about future sea level rise from melting polar ice sheets.



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