He might be opposed to gaming, but Gov. Bobby Jindal is rolling the political dice on the proposed sand berm project to keep BP's oil out of Louisiana marshes. There's a growing tide of opposition to the plan, which calls for massive rows of sand to be placed along Louisiana's historic barrier island chain.
It took some jockeying to get the project going, but Thad Allen, the Coast Guard admiral overseeing the Gulf oil crisis, held an emergency, closed-door meeting on June 1 to gather information about the permit application from state and federal response agencies. Jindal and several parish presidents attended. Afterward, Allen ordered BP to pay for the berm.
Sources involved with the briefing say Jindal and some parish officials became "agitated" when presented with concerns about the project — including data from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. The governor reportedly pressed the group for an up or down vote and said academic theories weren't needed.
But the science was there for review. Col. Al Lee, head of the Corps' New Orleans office, described the project as "a lot of effort over a relatively long construction period for a limited benefit." The U.S. Geological Survey reached a similar conclusion, adding that storm waves carrying oil could overtop the berms.
Windell Curole, president of the Louisiana Association of Levee Boards and general manger of the South Lafourche Levee District, says he has had some success with smaller berm projects in his area, but he doesn't know what to expect from Jindal's plan. Still, he supports the initiative. "It's better than nothing and it's not better than nothing," he says. "Look, nobody wants to sit on their hands. You have to search for every possible idea."
While lawmakers have been curious about the berm program, few if any worry about the scientific concerns. "I want to see as many berms as possible," says Rep. Jerry "Truck" Gisclair, D-Larose. "We can always blow the sand away. There's just no sense of urgency on this oil spill." Grand Isle, among other coastal hamlets, is in Gisclair's legislative district.
Garret Graves, chairman of the Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority and Jindal's top coastal advisor, says the berms will be six feet high and are based on the designs of a Dutch water resources firm. It will take three to four months to complete, he says, even though other estimates have put it at twice that.
Graves says the berms eventually will protect 3,000 miles of coastline. "You will see some progress in the next several days," he told lawmakers during a briefing on the House floor. As for effectiveness, Graves referred to a large map that showed oil reaching marshlands that were once protected by Louisiana's barrier islands — the same line the berm plan will follow. "If we get the berms there, we'll stop the oil well offshore," he said.
In addition to engineering concerns, the construction phase worries some observers. The state is scrambling to find enough dredges to do the work, and there's an effort to get federal agencies to move privately owned dredges off other projects. "This is going to be a very complex situation," says Scott Kirkpatrick, president of the Coastal Builders Coalition.
Interim Jefferson Parish President Steve Theriot says resources and equipment are already scarce — and the process is just beginning. Parishes could find themselves competing with the state for resources, and the problem will get worse when oil reaches other states. "It's going to be a fight for assets," Theriot says.
This much seems certain: Jindal has tied his political future to the Great Wall of Louisiana. For its part, BP is shelling out $360 million — about $200 million less than what the U.S. Department of the Interior estimated the project will cost. In return, Louisiana gets portions of its coastal restoration and protection blueprint funded privately in the name of fighting pollution. BP has already wired the first $60 million installment to the state.
He'll get credit for staring down BP, but there's great risk for Jindal. As this project goes, so goes his political fate — and that's as it should be.
Jeremy Alford can be reached at email@example.com.