Louisiana officials, scientists and environmental groups still squabbling over sand berm project

Brett Michael Dykes

Louisiana officials are lobbying the Army Corps of Engineers to continue the construction of sand berms along 40 miles of the state's coastline -- another volley in the seemingly endless dispute over how much oil remains in the gulf, and what sort of health threat it may pose to coastal businesses, residents and wildlife.

The federal government, of course, has repeatedly claimed that the "vast majority" of oil is gone from the gulf. But Louisiana appears to be siding with the coastal scientists taking issue with the government's claims. Recent studies suggest that there's still plenty of oil out there -- and that the BP cleanup effort has mainly driven it further beneath the gulf's surface via the deployment of chemical dispersants.

Still, that doesn't mean that environmental scientists are pleased with the state's plan to resume extensive berm construction along the coast. It turns out that sand berms themselves can create serious disruptions of the delicate gulf ecosystem.

The Times-Picayune's Mark Schliefstein reports Wednesday that Louisiana Office of Coastal Protection and Restoration Director Steve Mathies sent a letter to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to extend the emergency permit the Corps had granted for berm construction during the spill crisis. Back in June, the Corps had green-lighted a scaled-down version of an ambitious berm project backed by Republican Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal.  Mathies' request is essentially a bid to revive Jindal's berm-based approach to mitigating the spill's impact. Against the objections of scientists and environmental advocates who say that a huge berm project would pose a threat to a wide array of sea and wildlife, Mathies insists it wouldn't be anywhere near as destructive to the area's fragile ecosystem as an enormous oil invasion would be.

That's most certainly not the view of berm critics. The June berm project, which BP funded to the tune of  $950 million, has been universally blasted by the scientific community. As Western Carolina University professor of coastal ecology Robert Young wrote during the initial phases of the berm installation, "I have yet to speak to a scientist who thinks that the project will be effective."