Jindal’s Berms Turning Into Permanent Islands
Sand islands off Louisiana stopped little oil in gulf spill, commission finds
One of the most controversial tactics used against this summer’s Gulf of Mexico oil spill – the construction of large sand islands off the Louisiana coast – managed to stop only a “minuscule” amount of oil, according to a draft report from a presidential commission.
The report, released Thursday, is the latest in a series of findings from the staff of the commission, empaneled to investigate the response to the spill.
In this report, staffers found that the “sand berms” – which Louisiana officials had touted as an essential shield against the spill – trapped only about 1,000 barrels of oil out of the nearly 5 million barrels spilled.
For that, the report said, BP paid about $220 million. That, together with the $140 million more that BP has committed to pay, amounts to one-third of all the money the oil company has paid to federal or state governments to help respond to the spill.
Paying “$220 million for a spill response measure that trapped not much more than 1,000 barrels of oil is not a compelling cost-benefit trade-off,” the report said.
The report also delved into the decision making of federal officials, who approved about 45 miles of the berms despite objections from scientists that they would do little good and might cause environmental harm.
The report cites an e-mail from Thad W. Allen, the retired Coast Guard admiral who was the federal government’s point man on the spill, in which he asked, “What are the chances we could pick a couple of no brainer projects and call them prototypes to give us some trade space on the larger issue and give that to [Louisiana Gov. Bobby] Jindal this weekend?”
A few days later, the government announced it had approved plans to build one of the six islands that Louisiana wanted, as a pilot project.
Louisiana officials pleaded for more, the report says. When President Obama visited Grand Isle, La., on May 28, local officials demanded that more islands be approved. At that meeting, the report says, Obama asked Allen to review the idea anew and do it in a week.
After that, Allen held a scientific summit on the islands on June 1. When some scientists offered qualified support, the report says, Allen went out to dinner in New Orleans with BP chief executive Tony Hayward.
Allen “passed on the message to Mr. Hayward, over pasta and Gulf shrimp, that the [entire six-island project] would be approved, and that BP would be asked to pay for it,” the report says.
BP declined to comment on the report Thursday.
The report does not dwell on the motivations or decisions of the Louisiana officials who were pressing for the islands despite scientists’ objections.
In response to the report, Jindal released a statement calling it “partisan revisionist history at taxpayer expense.”
“The report’s assertion that the berms did not pass the commission’s ‘cost benefit analysis’ is insulting to the thousands of people whose way of life depends on the health of our working coast,” Jindal said. “We are thrilled that this has become the state’s largest barrier island restoration project in history.”
Lousiana officials also released a statement from Garret Graves, who heads the state’s coastal-restoration department. It reiterated arguments made during the spill: at the time, Lousiana officials feared a disaster from oil coming ashore, and this option seemed to be the only one on the same scale as the threat.
“The commission staff would rather have employed the fallback plan to just set our marshes on fire weeks after oil saturated them,” Graves wrote. “That was not a viable option for our state.”
The report says that Allen’s decision to green-light the sand islands was influenced by political pressure, including Obama’s request for another review of the idea.
“The decision did not result from a conviction that berms were an effective oil spill response measure worthy of their cost,” the report said. “Ultimately, pressure to build the berms overwhelmed the analysis.”
Allen, who has retired from the Coast Guard and gone to work for the RAND Corporation, provided a written statement in response to the report. He said that the decision was made “based on the outcome” of the scientific meeting he convened.
“To be clear, the ultimate approval of this proposal was my decision as the National Incident Commander,” the statement read, in part. It did not mention any pressure or political influence from the White House.
The sand berms were one of the stranger chapters of this summer’s spill. Scientists said that they would be too small, and too slow to appear, to do much good against the spill. But Louisiana officials made an emotional case for them and blasted the federal government for slowing them down.
“It makes so much sense. It’s so obvious. We’ve got to do it,” Jindal said in May, flying in a military helicopter over the oily gulf.
So far, the report says, only about 10 miles of the berms have been built. It says now that Louisiana officials want to shift their purpose, transforming them into more permanent islands that will hold back storm surges during a hurricane.
That will require new federal approval, the report said.