Washington Slows Down Sand Berms in Louisiana

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Plaquemines Parish President Billy Nungesser is not happy

Billy Nungesser is mad. This by itself is not unusual—as the president of Plaquemines parish in southeastern Louisiana, Nungesser has been dealing with the oil spill since day one, and since maybe day two he’s been angry with BP and the federal government’s sluggish response to the catastrophe. Nungesser—a constant presence by CNN anchor Anderson Cooper’s side in his spill coverage—has complained repeatedly that BP and Washington aren’t giving local residents what they need to fight the spill, and are too often standing in the way instead of helping.

But now Nungesser is really pissed. Federal authorities have put a temporary stop to a $360 million project to build massive sand berms—a plan Nungesser championed for weeks—that are meant to block the flow of oil into the marshes and wetlands in southeastern Louisiana. Interior Department officials—who were slow to approve the project and had doubts about it—have ordered Louisiana to stop dredging sand from the sensitive Chandeleur Islands:

[Louisiana Gov. Bobby] Jindal and Plaquemines Parish President Billy Nungesser said federal authorities want the state to move a dredging site farther from the Chandeleur Islands, a sensitive chain of barrier islands.

However, the Interior Department said the order was issued because the state was pumping sand from a sensitive section of the island chain and had failed to meet an extended deadline to install pipe that would tap sand from a less-endangered area.

The worry is that by pumping sand from the Chandeleurs—a chain of barrier islands east of the Mississippi River, and one of the first spots to be hit by oil—the berm project could damage the islands themselves, which form a vital natural defense against storm surges and hurricanes. The Interior Department says that Louisiana had promised to build a pipe that could bring in sand from outside the islands, but had failed to do so by an extended deadline—hence the order to stop.

That has Nungesser livid, and he made his unhappiness known in a letter to President Barack Obama, and in an interview with a local Fox station in New Orleans Tuesday:

Dammit, it took us long enough to get the permit now they are going to throw rocks at us. They all need to rot in hell for this…Some brilliant individual said we think a mile out is not enough it may scowl the island, or it may subside. So, let’s shut it down.

I asked the governor to let me stay out there tonight on the dredge, let em come out there and take the permit away. Tell them the radio not working. We’ll smash it with a hammer.

The berm project has been controversial from the start. Nungesser and Jindal complained in May that the federal government was too slow to approve the project, but many coastal scientists worry that far too little research was done on the impact that massive artificial barrier islands would have on the larger tidal flows in the Mississippi delta. Construction of the berms was finally given the go ahead at the beginning of June—and BP agreed to pay the massive costs—but on the condition that the berms would support long-term coastal reconstruction goals for coastal Louisiana, which has been battered by hurricanes and erosion in recent years. Taking sand from the Chandeleurs, environmentalists argue, will only hurt the coast over the long term.

That’s the point, though—for local officials like Nungesser, there won’t be a long term if extreme action isn’t take immediately to stop the oil, by any means necessary.  The five days it might take the state to build a longer pipeline for dredging are five days where the berm wouldn’t be built, five days when the oil would keep seeping in to the marshes. “We don’t have time for red tape and bureaucracy,” Jindal told reporters Wednesday. “We’re literally in a war to save our coast.”

Still, the history of the Mississippi delta is one where engineers were given a free hand to reshape the land and the river—and often met with disastrous side effects. There are serious concerns that the berms could be another in a long of delta mistakes:

“The short-term fix isn’t going to hold for very long, but it makes Jindal look like a hero,” says Jamie Rappaport Clark, executive vice president at Defender of Wildlife and a former USFWS official. “They’re robbing from Peter to pay Paul and digging a hole to build a berm that is going to collapse anyway.”

But the need to do something while the oil keeps flowing will be strong—as will the need for politicians to be seen to be doing something, even as national officials in the Coast Guard or the White House try to keep the massive and sprawling response on track. Expect that tension to define the oil spill response as long as it continues—and don’t expect anyone to be happy with it. Especially Billy Nungesser.