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Louisiana constructing islands in the gulf to aid in oil cleanup

By David A. Fahrenthold
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, July 19, 2010; A10

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.

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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