Officials, scientists colliding over spill solutions
With oil hitting Barataria Bay, a vast estuary in southeast Louisiana that boasts one of the most productive fisheries in the country, local parish officials hatched a plan in May to save the fragile ecosystem: They would build rock dikes across several major tidal inlets between the bay and the Gulf of Mexico to block and then capture the oil.
Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal supported the plan, and BP agreed to pay for the project, estimated to cost $30 million. By early June, loading began of about 100,000 tons of rock onto barges on the Mississippi River for transport to the coast.
But over the weekend, the Army Corps of Engineers denied a permit for the project, citing environmental concerns, in particular the potential for the rock barriers to cause widespread erosion and the breaching of Barataria Bay’s existing barrier islands. The ruling echoed the sentiments of independent experts on coastal wetlands who had strongly objected to the plan.
As the oil spill enters its third month, Louisiana officials have grown increasingly enamored of large-scale engineering projects, such as sand berms and rock walls, to keep the oil off their coast. But these projects have brought the desires of state and local officials into sharp conflict not only with a complicated federal bureaucracy charged with protecting wetlands and estuaries, but also with an experienced and highly vocal community of local coastal scientists.
“They’re just sitting back criticizing,” said Deano Bonano, emergency preparedness director for Jefferson Parish, which borders Barataria Bay. “Where are they when it comes to protecting this bay?”
But the scientists insist the rock plan was misguided.
“There was very strong scientific backing for not doing this,” said Denise Reed, a wetlands specialist and director of the Pontchartrain Institute for Environmental Sciences in New Orleans. “This could really devastate our barrier shoreline, our first line of defense.”