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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.

In May, the federal government issued permits for the construction of 45 miles of islands. BP agreed to foot the bill of $360 million.

This island, situated at the north end of a fading barrier island chain east of the Mississippi River mouth, is one result. One day last week, Jindal flew out in a National Guard Black Hawk helicopter, roaring out of urban New Orleans, over green mazes of coastal marsh and then open water. Finally, the island appeared. With its bulldozers and workers in safety vests, it looked like a road-construction project, dropped in the middle of the gulf.

Jindal climbed to the island's highest point, a mound of soft dirt perhaps eight feet high, and surveyed the scene.

"That's what I like to see," he told reporters as bulldozers behind him moved the dirt spewing out the pipe. "A couple of weeks ago, this was all open water."

Asked about the size of the island, Jindal said work had slowed because the federal government had taken a month to approve the initial permit and then delayed dredging for a week last month. Federal officials did not renew a temporary permit to dredge in an ecologically sensitive spot, saying Louisiana had agreed not to dredge there.

Jindal said the island was already stopping oil. Its back side was spattered with tar balls the size of sidewalk gum wads. "This shows that the sand berms are doing their jobs," he said. A 2.5-mile island is being built on the other side of the Mississippi River mouth.

But state officials say that even this first 45 miles won't be done until around Halloween, which would give oil months to float past. Some scientists in Louisiana are also questioning whether berms such as this one will survive the gulf's pounding waves.

A natural barrier island is "a beach, and a dune, and a marsh at the back. And this was really just a pile of sand," said Denise Reed, a scientist at the University of New Orleans.

That makes the sand-berm islands more susceptible to erosion. One scientist here posted pictures online that seemed to show one nearly submerged in a storm. State officials said it reemerged after the high seas.

Now the state is pushing a plan that, although smaller in scope, is even more controversial. Jefferson Parish, with the state's support, wants to pile lines of rock partway across a pair of passes that connect marshes to the gulf. If oily water hits the rocks, officials think, it will be pushed away from the opening and toward a confined area where skimmers can suck it up.

A number of Louisiana scientists, including a panel appointed by the state, have expressed reservations about the rock dams. Some have said it is dangerous to change this kind of natural plumbing: The same amount of tide will now be forced through a smaller opening. The result could be powerful currents that speed up the marsh's erosion or that drive floating oil deeper inland.

"It's the simple physics of a garden hose. You put your finger over the nozzle of the hose, you make the water spray out with more velocity," said Leonard Bahr, a coastal scientist who served as an adviser to Louisiana governors for 18 years, until he said he was "asked to retire" when Jindal took over in 2008. "You're going to increase the erosive power of the tidal flow."

On July 3, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers rejected the plan to build the dams, citing these and other concerns.

State and parish officials have said they will not give up on the plan, although they will work to improve it.

The complaints about the rocks "are 'what-if,' or 'what-may-happen,' " said Bonano, of Jefferson Parish. "That's our frustration: that the opposition to the plan is based on what may happen. . . . As opposed to the oil that is happening."

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