In the immediate aftermath of the BP Deepwater Horizon disaster, Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal aggressively pushed a controversial solution: the massive and rapid construction of a series of sand berms along the Louisiana coast. Governor Jindal’s proposal was swiftly criticized by a number of experts. They claimed the project was ill-conceived, that it could lead to additional environmental damages, and that it could potentially undermine the larger goal of coastal restoration.

Still, BP agreed to foot the bill, and the federal government provided the requisite permits.

Today, more than a month after the well was declared officially “dead,” Louisiana is still constructing sand berms, ostensibly to help continue capturing oil (which is, without a doubt, still out in the gulf). But as reported recently in The New York Times, according to official estimates, the sand berms have, so far, captured only 1,000 of the 5,000,000 barrels of oil that leaked into the gulf. Quoting:

Gov. Bobby Jindal made the sand berms a signature element of his response to the oil spill last spring,exhorting federal officials to approve the project, and BP to foot the bill. So far the oil company has disbursed $240 million of a promised $360 million to the state.

Yet many scientists say the remaining oil from the spill, the largest in United States history, is far too dispersed to be blocked or captured by large sand structures.

“It certainly would have no impact on the diluted oil, which is what we’re talking about now,” said Larry McKinney, who heads the Gulf of Mexico research center at Texas A&M University in Corpus Christi. “The probability of their being effective right now is pretty low.”

So far, the berms have captured only 1,000 barrels of oil, according to official estimates, compared with the nearly five million barrels believed to have spewed from the BP well over all. By contrast, more than 800,000 barrels of oil were captured by BP at the wellhead, and roughly 270,000 barrels of oil were burned off by Coast Guard vessels offshore. Skimming operations, meanwhile, recovered at least 34 million gallons of oil-water mixture.

Ron Morris, a former Coast Guard captain and general manager of an oil spill response company on Alaska’s Prudhoe Bay, called the berms’ 1,000 barrels a paltry amount.

“That’s not an awful lot of oil in the grand scheme of things,” said Mr. Morris, whose company sent 44 workers to the gulf to assist in the response effort and cleanup. “It probably wasn’t worth the dollars that they put into it.”

Without a doubt, as the Times also points out, the project has been good for Louisiana industry. It’s a $360 million construction project.

But the question shouldn’t be about whether or not a $360 million construction project would be good for Louisiana industry; that should be self-evident. The question should be: Is this the best and most effective investment we can make?

Remember, the project has always been controversial. From the very beginning, scientists questioned the merits and the effectiveness of the project. In September, the Environmental Protection Agency issued a stern rebuke of Jindal’s intransigence on the sand berm project. From WWLTV:

Federal environmental regulators are blasting Gov. Bobby Jindal’s $360 million plan to block oil from the BP spill with sand berms, saying barriers built so far are ineffective and threaten wildlife.

In a Sept. 7 letter made public Thursday, the Environmental Protection Agency urged the Army Corps of Engineers to turn down the state’s recent request to build 101 miles of sand berms to stop oil from contaiminating shores and marshlands. The state needs permission from the Army Corps to complete the project.

The sand berms — paid for with $360 million from BP — have drawn criticism from coastal scientists and federal regulators. Critics say the work was ill-conceived and would damage the environment. Still, Jindal has made the sand berms a cornerstone to his strategy to fight the Gulf of Mexico oil spill.

Now, with the well dead, to many, the project seems “pointless,” a waste of time and precious money that could be used, instead, for more sustainable coastal restoration projects. Again, quoting from the Times:

Some scientists and federal officials suggest that the remaining money allocated for the berms might be better spent on other coastal restoration projects, a move that BP says it would support. The money could be spent, they say, on barrier island restoration, for example, in which dredged sand is used to bolster existing islands, mimicking natural processes.

In other words, BP would support spending the remaining $120 million it has pledged for sand berm construction on other projects, like barrier island restoration (which has the added benefit of better protecting Louisiana from hurricanes). Although Governor Jindal is technically directing “BP’s money,” not taxpayer money, we had and still have an opportunity to compel a foreign oil company whose negligence resulted in what could be the largest ecological and environmental disaster in American history to help rebuild our coast.

It seems like a no-brainer.

And the best thing is: People have been studying this for decades. Scores of scientists and engineers have built their careers around Louisiana coastal restoration. There are immediately implementable, shovel-ready projects that BP could and would be paying for otherwise. If we don’t pay for them with sand berm money from BP, then we’re going to have to pay for them with taxpayer money.

I don’t have any special insight about Mr. Jindal’s decision-making process on this issue. Some have accused him of listening to self-interested engineers instead of heeding the advice of coastal scientists, government agencies, and other professionals. The Shaw Group, a Fortune 500 engineering and construction firm headquartered in Baton Rouge, is the prime consultant on the project, and as reported by OpenSource, they’re also one of Governor Jindal’s top three campaign contributors.

It is worth noting, however, that Jim Bernhard, the founder and CEO of Shaw, is also the former Chairman of the Louisiana Democratic Party and a major donor to Democratic candidates and causes. To me, it’s not particularly surprising that Shaw, the only Fortune 500 headquartered in Louisiana, has donated a little less than $25,000 to Jindal, over the course of his entire political career. As critical as I have sometimes been about the Governor, I seriously doubt his decision to promote the sand berm project had much, if anything, to do with campaign contributions; Jindal believed in this project. He staked a lot of his own political capital on this project, and in the process, he made news– challenging the criticism from federal agencies and experts and asserting that he, the Governor of Louisiana, understood the solutions better than the President or anyone else in the Obama Administration. For the most part, it was a public relations victory for Jindal. At least in the immediate term.

But at some point, those of us in Louisiana need to assess whether this decision was wise at the time, and more importantly, whether or not it is necessary to continue a project that even the Governor’s Administration admits to be fraught with delays and hang-ups.

Interestingly, two days ago, Garrett Graves, Governor Jindal’s Director of Coastal Affairs, responded to a YahooNews report on the sand berms and Shaw’s donations to Mr. Jindal:

This was all about who could get it done quickly. The benefit of using Shaw is that they are a Louisiana-based company that cares about Louisiana’s coast. They are one of the few companies that were capable of managing something of this size and scope.

But only days before, Mr. Graves told The Wall Street Journal that Shaw had not “delivered what they promised,” suggesting that Shaw could have “picked up the pace” by hiring “foreign” dredgers to assist them. On one hand, the project has been great for Louisiana industry, but on the other, it’s been hindered by a reluctance to outsource more of the work.

To me, the Jindal administration seems to be towing an untenable line, all in an attempt to sell – what appears to be- a massive misallocation of resources, the definition of the word “boondoggle.”

5 thoughts

  1. Such a sad and infuriating waste of money. Nungesser, Chris Roberts, Taffaro, and the like are equally as culpable as Jindal for promoting this boneheaded waste of money/donation to the Shaw Group.

    1. Realistically, only a few companies could handle such a project. I’m no fan of Jim Bernard, and I’m certainly not a Democrat. The closest I can get is, I’ve known the president of Shaw Capital for 22 years (ROTC, Law School and the Louisiana Army National Guard). However, Shaw, URS, KBR and a few others are about the only top level contractors that could do such a job. Shaw is headquartered in Louisiana, so I must confess to preferring them.

      As far as the wisdom of the project – we didn’t even start constructing the berms until well after the spill. If conditions had not been optimal for the oil to disperse and become dilute (and I mean optimal) the berms would have caught more. They will capture more, when and if a large spill occurs.

      1. “However, Shaw, URS, KBR and a few others are about the only top level contractors that could do such a job. Shaw is headquartered in Louisiana, so I must confess to preferring them.”

        I agree.

        “If conditions had not been optimal for the oil to disperse and become dilute (and I mean optimal) the berms would have caught more. They will capture more, when and if a large spill occurs.”

        I completely disagree. I’ve never read any analysis that suggests conditions WERE, in fact, “optimal” for the oil to dilute. Some have suggested that the warm waters may have facilitated dispersion and dilution, but there’s still a lot of oil out there, right now. And even though the water was relatively warm, the clean-up efforts were continually hampered by bad weather, including the threats of hurricanes. I don’t think the conditions were, by any means, “optimal.”

        But more importantly, there is absolutely no evidence that these berms will “capture more, when and if a large spill occurs.” These berms are being constructed in response to the Deepwater Horizon spill, and the total project area is reportedly between 25-40 miles, which makes the $360 million price tag seem all the more ludicrous and wasteful. Len Bahr, who was Governor Jindal’s Director of Coastal Affairs until 2008, recently wrote:

        The governor’s shortsighted decision to embark on speculative coastal engineering is being promulgated under an ‘emergency’ guise – the blatantly bogus threat of invading oil. This choice precludes investing whatever BP compensation funds ultimately become available for comprehensive, systems-oriented coastal restoration.

        Dr. Bahr also claimed:

        The project was designed in the governor’s office, with consultants from engineering and dredging companies, companies that subsequently received no-bid contracts to perform the work.

        Coastal scientists, both agency and academic, were actively excluded from in house discussions on project design, doubtless because strong technical objections were raised as planning and permit documents were leaking out.

        I probably should have included this quote in the original post; it’s damning. The former head of Coastal Affairs, a man who was employed by Governor Jindal and a man with unquestionable credentials and expertise, has publicly stated that the Governor’s Administration “actively excluded” coastal scientists and relied, instead, on the expertise of the very engineers who stood to benefit from no-bid contracts. Dr. Bahr’s advised and worked on these issues, in various capacities, for every Louisiana Governor since Buddy Roemer.

        Ace, if you or anyone else can provide evidence that Dr. Bahr is misleading the public, then please, let us know. I have no reason to believe he is anything but a passionate Louisianan who built his entire career working on and championing coastal restoration, and I think he’s taking a big risk by standing up so boldly to his old boss, a man who happens to be the most powerful politician in Louisiana. I have seen little proof that Governor Jindal actually supports science, despite the fact that he has a degree in Biology from Brown University. When it comes to coastal restoration, as a default, I tend to trust the experienced and highly-educated expert who made a career specializing in the issue over the politician who was allegedly swayed by the very engineers who received no-bid contracts for the projects they pitched. I don’t believe Dr. Bahr is trying to create a political wedge issue; I think he’s a coastal scientist who is frustrated and skeptical of Governor Jindal’s decision to spend $360 million for an unproven sand berm project, instead of tackling our real and pressing needs– projects that have been sitting on shelves and collecting dust for over a decade.

        To Darren, no, as far as I can tell, there is no evidence that these berms will effectively protect Louisiana, in any meaningful way, from a hurricane. There’s actually some photographic evidence that these berms are being eroded almost as quickly as they’re being constructed.

        1. Lamar,

          I may have spoken in broad generalities. Politically, it certainly makes sense, especially as opposed to doing nothing.

          Financially, it is probably grossly inefficient, at best, and assuming it is wasteful is probably not unfair.

          I guess time will tell….

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