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Experts skeptical about rush to build barriers

Workers build a sand berm around homes on Dauphin Island, Ala., on Saturday. Louisiana plans to build similar berms to protect its barrier islands and marshes.  (Associated Press)
Workers build a sand berm around homes on Dauphin Island, Ala., on Saturday. Louisiana plans to build similar berms to protect its barrier islands and marshes. (Associated Press)

LOS ANGELES – The frenzied response to the BP oil well blowout in the Gulf of Mexico has featured any number of wing-and-a-prayer options from engineers and elected officials. But a sand-barrier plan that skeptical scientists are referring to as “The Great Wall of Louisiana” has been the most politically charged.

Republican Gov. Bobby Jindal, Sen. David Vitter, R-La., and angry parish presidents have hammered the Obama administration in past weeks over what they characterize as a glacial federal approval process for the state’s plan to construct 128 miles of sand berms, dredging up 102 million cubic yards of seabed in the process, to bolster the state’s barrier islands and absorb oil before it reaches sensitive coastal marshes.

The Army Corps of Engineers gave final approval last week to a scaled-down version of the project after rejecting the state’s original proposal, which could have cost as much as $950 million and taken as long as nine months.

But as Jindal and other politicians celebrate the partial victory, coastal researchers warn that the project can’t be built in time to help – even if it had been approved when first proposed last month. And scientists warn that it may have unforeseen consequences.

The berm system could reroute the spill up the Mississippi Delta, and it would be unlikely to survive even a mild storm during the current hurricane season.

It also will absorb the short supplies of sand badly needed for projects to restore the state’s coastline, damaged by past hurricanes.

Even Coast Guard Adm. Thad Allen, who ultimately approved the project, was lukewarm in his endorsement.

“There are a lot of doubts whether this is a valid oil spill response technique, given the length of construction and so forth,” he said in announcing the first of six berm sites at Scofield Island.

BP, which was ordered by Allen to pick up the estimated $360 million cost of the revised 45-mile-long berm project, washed its hands of the outcome. “The company will not assume liability for unintended consequences,” said spokesman Mark Proegler.



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