Louisiana's defense plan: Bulked-up islands

By Marc Kaufman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, May 10, 2010; A06

VENICE, LA. -- With the prospects dimming for capping the Deepwater Horizon oil well blowout anytime soon, federal, state and local officials are actively assessing a plan to quickly and massively shore up the battered barrier islands that protect the Louisiana marshlands.

The plan, which local officials hope to present to the White House within days, calls for building up almost 70 miles of barrier islands by dredging sand and mud from a mile out into the Gulf of Mexico and depositing it onto the outer shores of the islands.

Some of the islands included in what local officials call their line of defense are federal bird and wildlife sanctuaries, including the Breton National Wildlife Refuge.

A project of this scale normally requires years of environmental assessments, but local and state officials say there is no time for those now. The current boom system was of little use even in Sunday's calm waters, and officials say they face an environmental disaster when hurricane season arrives and the oily water is pushed into the marshlands ashore.

Efforts to protect the Louisiana marshlands, some of the most productive in the world, became even more urgent after the failure Saturday to place a dome on the gushing well, 5,000 feet below the surface. BP officials said Sunday that they had moved the structure 1,600 feet away from the site and were working on making it work and bringing in other technologies, including a smaller dome.

BP Chief Operating Officer Doug Suttles was in Venice, La., on Sunday and met with local officials about the barrier islands plan, which he described as "not yet complete." He said that the company was interested in further exploring the project after it's more fully developed but that BP hoped to be able to cap the well soon so that a major barrier-building program might not be necessary.

Suttles met with Billy Nungesser, president of Plaquemines Parish, which is especially threatened by the oil. Nungesser said 10 dredges were available to start work, which he hoped could be done night and day.

"We believe this can be done quickly and in a way that doesn't hurt the pelicans and sea turtles and other great wildlife out there," he said.

"But here's the really bad truth: If we don't do it, the chances are good those birds and animals will be destroyed by the oil later this summer, and the marshes will be destroyed, too."

Dredging countless tons of sand is costly, and Nungesser said Sunday that estimates for a full "line of defense" were about $250 million. He said that estimate is based on building the islands up to a six-foot-high slope, which engineers said was necessary to resist future storms. The plan also calls for creating passages within and between islands so water can move back and forth.

Estimates of how much oil is leaking from the well range from 5,000 to 26,500 barrels per day. Although chemical dispersants have kept any large oil slicks from hitting shore, oil globules and an oil sheen have come up on some of the barrier islands, and Nungesser said some have even moved beyond the barriers and closer to the marshes.

The Associated Press also reported Sunday that thick blobs of tar washed up on Alabama's white sand beaches, yet another sign the spill was spreading.

The barrier island plan was made public on Saturday by Gov. Bobby Jindal, who said his staff was also working hard to make it happen. At a news conference in Venice, near the Gulf tip of Plaquemines Parish, Jindal credited Nungesser with developing the plan and said he supported it fully. A far more limited version of the plan had been in the works for several years, but Nungesser said the oil threat led to the expansion and heightened sense of immediacy. He also said a Dutch dredging firm came to the parish last week and helped officials develop a more expansive plan.

Garret Graves, chairman of the state Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority, said the state had worked on the proposal with the joint oil spill commission led by the Coast Guard and BP but not with the EPA or the White House. He said that numerous state and federal permits would be needed before major dredging could begin but that there wouldn't be any problems obtaining them from the state. Officials might have to apply for the federal permits while the works begins, he said.

Graves said the threat of long-term or permanent damage to the marshes was real and required forceful action. He also said the state had been hampered in its efforts to protect its 77,000 miles of winding coastline because of a significant shortage in booms.

Nungesser, who spent two hours with President Obama when he visited Louisiana and has also met at length with Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Lisa P. Jackson, said he was optimistic the administration would help expedite the approval process. A self-styled "Reagan Republican," he said that he was deeply impressed by Obama's willingness to come to his parish, by his knowledge of the problem and by what he called "his very obvious desire to help."

But it was unclear Sunday how the White House would respond to such a dramatic request involving such a sensitive environment.

Bringing tons of sand, and even Mississippi River sediment, out to fragile barrier islands is sure to be controversial with environmental advocates. It also might not work. The barrier islands, five to 10 miles offshore, are much smaller than they used to be because of hurricanes -- but more importantly because of changes in the environment created by the levees, jetties and canals built to control the Mississippi and to enable oil and gas exploration and drilling.

Aaron Viles, an environmental leader who heads the Louisiana-based Gulf Restoration Network, said that he understands why local leaders are pushing for a large dredging and island-building plan but that he worries about the consequences.

"BP has created a situation where there are no good answers," he said. "Rebuilding the barrier islands slowly and carefully is a very good idea. Doing it quickly could make a bad situation worse."

Staff writer Eli Saslow contributed to this report.

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