Boondoggle Berms Busted
Science, analysis get the bum’s, er, ‘berm’s rush’
Frantic to do something as millions of barrels of oil spewed into the Gulf of Mexico off Louisiana’s coast, state and regional leaders focused on berms. And to the layman, mounding shell and sand from the Gulf floor as a protective barrier against oily waves and tides seemed to make sense. It had the ring of “truthiness,” if you will.
So despite concerns from federal environmental and regulatory agencies that dredging might exacerbate environmental problems, as well as take too long to build to be of any potential worth, political pressure won the day, according to a report issued by the National Commission on the BP Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill and Offshore Drilling.
Said the report, “In analyzing whether the berms would be effective, the National Incident Command sought to balance science with the demands of elected officials. Ultimately, pressure to build the berms overwhelmed the analysis.”
Problem is, the pricey berms that still were under construction months after the well was plugged didn’t perform very well. The report, first released in December and updated last week, concludes that berms are not a viable alternative to oil spill protection. For one, the shifting sands and habitats of the marine environment thwart long-term planning and construction designs.
Noting the expense, the report states that “… $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.” Add another $140 million committed to berm construction as of Nov. 1, and that amounted to one-third of all money paid to the affected states by BP.
The report paints a picture of politicians carrying the day in pushing through a suspect strategy. Further, the report paints the picture of state and local officials not letting a crisis go to waste by exploiting the berm opportunity to remedy coastal erosion.
Gov. Bobby Jindal, who previously has derided the report as “revisionist history,” doesn’t shoulder criticism alone. The report notes that “although the White House has told the Commission staff that Admiral (Thad) Allen was the ‘sole decision-maker’ on the berms project, we believe the facts show that the White House influenced the National Incident Command’s June 2 decision” to approve the berms.
The report should be a must-read for state and federal officials and regulatory agencies on the importance of protecting scientific and technical evaluations from political or visceral assessments.
We agree with the report’s conclusion: “For the future, the Commission may wish to recommend use of an independent process or group — perhaps separated from the National Incident Command — to provide decision makers with a rigorous, scientific analysis of the effectiveness of large-scale and previously unstudied spill response measures like the Louisiana berms project.”