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BP oil spill pushes Louisiana to desperate, massive 'berm' plan

Lambasting BP and the Coast Guard as unresponsive, Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal wants to build a wall of sand to prevent the BP oil spill from coming ashore. It's not clear whether he has the authority to adopt such a plan or whether it would even work.

Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal (l.) and Plaquemines Parish President Billy Nungesser speak while sailing near an island in Barataria Bay on the coast of Louisiana Sunday. The island is home to hundreds of birds and is being impacted by oil from the BP oil spill.

Patrick Semansky/AP

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Increasingly defiant of BP executives and federal officials, state and local officials in Louisiana say they are prepared to take emergency measures into their own hands to protect the state’s wetlands from encroaching oil from the BP oil spill.

Some marine scientists, however, say that Gov. Bobby Jindal’s plan to dredge sand onto coastal barrier islands to keep the spill offshore may take too long to be effective, could possibly damage the coastal environment, and could undermine long-term efforts to rebuild the state’s eroding coastline.

Over the weekend, Louisiana Attorney General Buddy Caldwell sent a letter to the US Army Corps of Engineers stating that Louisiana has the right to dredge sand to fight the oil spill without the corps’ approval. Caldwell cited the 10th Amendment to the Constitution to argue that the federal government does not have the authority to deny a state the right to act in an emergency. The 10th Amendment states that powers not explicitly given to the federal government or prohibited to the states are given to the states and the people.

IN PICTURES: Louisiana oil spill

For nearly two weeks Governor Jindal has asked the Corps to approve a plan to dredge sand berms off the coast in an attempt to keep oil from reaching inland marshes.

Sixty-five miles of the state’s coast were affected by oil over the past week, and leaders of coastal parishes say that BP and the Coast Guard have not responded to their calls to contain the oil before it washes ashore.

Local officials make ultimatum

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In Jefferson Parish over the weekend, local officials on Grand Isle commandeered 30 private fishing vessels that BP had commissioned but had not sent out to combat the encroaching oil. The boats laid down protective boom as the oil came ashore. Jindal told reporters Sunday that he supported the decision and was willing to go to jail with parish leaders if federal authorities tried to step in.

“For four days we were watching it come in and gave the coordinates to BP and they didn’t do anything,” said Jefferson Parish Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness director Deano Banano. “Heavy oil came into Barataria Bay, and it was not kept out of the marshes, so it’s a cleanup operation now, not a containment operation. Promises that were made over the past weeks were not kept. We were let down.”

Plaquemines Parish president Billy Nungesser said Monday he was giving BP and the Coast Guard 24 hours to take more effective measures to protect the parish from oil before he began acting on its own.

“This is our worst nightmare,” said Mr. Nungesser. “The oil is getting into our inner wetlands, killing wildlife and decimating breeding grounds. There’s no sense of urgency, and we’re just reacting. We’re begging someone to step up to the plate and do the right thing, to throw the kitchen sink at this and do whatever we can.”

Jindal, along with Nungesser and other parish leaders, are pushing their emergency plan to dredge sand along barrier islands on an 80-mile stretch of the state’s coast from the Chandeleur Sound east of the Mississippi to Barataria Bay west of the river.

More long-term harm than good?

State leaders are not consulting independent scientists about the plan or considering questions about its long-term effects on the coastal environment, says Gregory Stone, a professor of oceanography in the School of Coastal and Environmental Studies at Louisiana State University.

“The governor has not been open about sharing details,” said Professor Stone. “This is a mammoth engineering project, and it can be done, but it’s being done willy-nilly. It’s foolish to embark on a project of this scale without establishing potential negative impacts on currents, on coastal erosion, on wildlife habitat, on a whole range of environmental issues.”

The governor’s plan could be improved before implementation, says George Paul Kemp, vice president of the Audubon Society’s Louisiana Coastal Initiative and a former professor of coastal geology at LSU.

“A lot of it seems wishful, but that’s not to say that elements of the plan should not be moved on,” says Mr. Kemp, who met Monday in Venice, La., with EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson and a White House representative to discuss the federal response to the disaster.

Kemp says he and other ocean scientists are encouraging state and federal officials to focus efforts on the many tidal inlets and passes in the oil-affected areas. Kemp and Stone both said that boom can be effectively used to redirect oil toward existing barrier island beaches, preventing it from reaching inland wetlands.

Stone worries that if the state defies federal authorities on emergency dredging, federal funding for long-term rebuilding projects might not be available. Since hurricane Katrina, which nearly erased many barrier islands off the Louisiana coast, the state has tried to get funding to rebuild its eroded coastline. Sand that is available to permanently rebuild the beaches is limited, and emergency dredging could use those resources.

Meanwhile, Jindal said he will continue to use state resources under his authority to fight the spill.

In Lafourche Parish, the Louisiana National Guard is using helicopters to drop sandbags to fill small inlets on Elmer’s Island, preventing oil washing up on the beach from entering inland waters. This week Jindal also called on the Coast Guard to take control of the spill response away from BP in Timbalier and Barataria bays and in Breton Sound.

IN PICTURES: Louisiana oil spill

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