Louisiana constructing islands in the gulf to aid in oil cleanup

BP, the government and an army of volunteers are fighting to contain and clean the millions of gallons of oil spewing from the site of the Deepwater Horizon explosion in the Gulf of Mexico.
By David A. Fahrenthold
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, July 19, 2010

ON SAND BERM E-4 IN THE GULF OF MEXICO -- In theory, Louisiana's plan to hold back the BP oil spill sounds awe-inspiring, like an ancient myth made possible with oil-company money: To keep out an offshore invader, the state wants to make new land rise from the sea.

In reality, it looks slightly less impressive.

Here, more than 15 miles offshore, a dredging company is building an island about as wide as an interstate highway. This sandy strip is slowly getting bigger, as dredged-up mud gurgles and creaks down its spine in a rusty pipe and shoots out to form new land at its end.

But this island is still less than a mile long: a spot, not a wall, in a vast sea tainted by oil.

Officially called Sand Berm E-4, it is part of this state's most ambitious plan to combat the oil and at the same time help stave off long-term coastal erosion. It is at the heart of a politically touchy spat between Louisiana and the federal government, and between Louisiana and some of its scientists, over how to fight the oil that has leaked from the Macondo well.

Louisiana officials say the most reliable way to stop the oil from reaching sensitive marshes is to put solid land -- built from sandbags, sand piles or plain old rocks -- in its way. But many scientists and environmentalists say they are not convinced that these efforts will do much good.

"They are going to cost a lot of money, and their ultimate value is very much in question," said Aaron Viles, of the nonprofit Gulf Restoration Network. In some places, he said, the state's land-building "may be doing more harm than good."

Louisiana is the closest land to the blown-out BP well, and its salt marshes are far harder to clean than the sandy beaches that dominate the coast in Mississippi, Alabama and Florida. Louisiana, led by Gov. Bobby Jindal (R), has reacted with furious work to keep oil out of those marshes -- and with criticism of the Obama administration for holding its efforts up.

State officials say they chose to build land barriers because they extend to the ocean floor, unlike the floating "containment boom." They can also stay put in a storm, unlike the barges used to block marsh inlets. The state says the land-building plan will still be necessary, even if the BP well remains capped.

There is already far too much oil in the water, Louisiana officials say, for skimming and controlled burns to eradicate it.

"There's not enough assets in this world right now to skim this thing offshore," said Deano Bonano, an official in Jefferson Parish who is overseeing efforts to protect the parish's marshes. "You're talking about an ocean of oil."

The state has already filled in 14 inlets that connected the marshes with the Gulf of Mexico, using mounds of dirt and giant sandbags in metal frames. But this man-made island is part of a far more ambitious effort: The state has proposed building 128 miles of islands in arcs off the coast, based on existing plans to rebuild lost barrier islands to fight erosion.

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