06/02/2013 09:54 pm ET Updated Aug 02, 2013

Louisiana turns sand berms into barrier islands

(This article is published in "The Louisiana Weekly" in the June 3, 2013 edition.)

Scientists and engineers questioned the cost and longevity of sand berms when they were built in 2010 to block BP oil from Louisiana's coast. Recently, however, several berms in Barataria Basin are being fortified into barrier islands by the state's Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority, using funds from BP and others. These berms-to-barriers projects--located about 50 miles south of New Orleans on the west side of the Mississippi River--are within the first line of defense against coastal erosion.

Last week, Dave Johanson, Great Lakes Dredge & Dock project manager in Empire, La., said his company's cutterhead dredge California is working around the clock, seven days a week to extract riverine sand. A staff of 120 in the water and on land is rebuilding Scofield Island and Shell Island. Work on Scofield is about 95 percent done. GLDD started dredging sand recently for Shell Island in a project that should be finished this year and ahead of schedule, Johanson said. River sand is pumped through a 19-mile pipeline to Shell Island and a 21-mile pipe to Scofield.

Coastal islands were eroding when the Deepwater Horizon exploded southeast of Venice, La. on April 20, 2010, sending millions of barrels of oil into the Gulf. Under pressure from Louisiana and Plaquemines Parish officials, BP in June 2010 promised the state $360 million to build six sand berms to keep oil at bay.

BP's berm announcement was made several days after Coast Guard Admiral Thad Allen told BP's then-CEO Tony Hayward over an early-June dinner in New Orleans that the feds would ask BP to pay for six berms, according to a national Oil Spill Commission working paper released on Dec. 19, 2010. The spot where Allen and Hayward dined was Eleven 79 on Annunciation St.

After that Bob Dudley, BP's current CEO, held a June 7, 2010 press conference on the company's berm funding, and said BP hoped it would provide the protection sought by Governor Bobby Jindal and Plaquemines Parish President Billy Nungesser.

By late 2010, fifteen miles of berms had been built off Plaquemines Parish over five months at a cost of $220 million. Last week, Johanson at GLDD said "we did the lion's share of that work."

Critics said the berms wouldn't keep BP oil from the coast and predicted they would wash or blow away. By late 2010, the berms had only blocked a modest amount of oil. The national Oil Spill Commission's Dec. 19, 2010 working paper on Louisiana berms said that among the various estimates of oil captured by the berms, none was much greater than a thousand barrels. The spill, meanwhile, was nearly 5 million barrels.

In late 2010, leftover funds from the state's berm project were redirected. Jindal said that $100 million earmarked for berms would be used to fortify barrier islands. Prior investments in sand, dredges and pipes would help keep costs in check, according to CPRA.

Using riverine sand, areas behind several of the 2010 berms are being filled with vegetation now. Berms-to-barriers projects in CPRA's FY 2014 budget for the year starting this October are Shell Island East and what remains to be done on Scofield Island.

A federally funded Pelican Island project, using sand pumped from ten miles out in the Gulf, was completed last year.

Last week, CPRA chairman Garret Graves said fortification of the berms began last fiscal year. In FY 2014, berms-to-barriers are funded at $44.5 million for work that will be done then on Shell Island East and Scofield Island. Meanwhile, tens of millions of dollars have been committed to Pelican Island under the federal-state Coastal Wetlands Planning, Protection and Restoration Act program, he said.

Graves said "the oil spill trustees, working with BP, recently proposed that an additional $100 million be invested on the east and west lobes of Shell Island." Those trustees, affiliated with the Natural Resource Damage Assessment or NRDA process, include a number of state and federal agencies.

In April, Governor Jindal said BP had committed another $320 million to restore Louisiana's barrier islands. Of that, $101 million will be used for marshes, dunes and beaches on Shell Island's east and west lobes.

Last week, Scott Eustis, coastal wetland specialist with the Gulf Restoration Network in New Orleans, said "barrier island projects have been a constant in coastal restoration but what's innovative now is their use of riverine sediments. Because the river replaces sediment, these projects are more sustainable than using sand from the Gulf."

Chuck Perrodin, CPRA spokesman in Baton Rouge, said Scofield Island and Shell Island are the first barrier islands to be rebuilt using riverine sand. He added "we have also successfully used riverine sand for marsh creation projects further inland."

In March 2012, Great Lakes Dredge & Dock, headquartered in Illinois, won a $46.5 million CPRA contract to dredge river sand and rebuild Scofield Island for completion this year. This spring, GLDD was awarded a $40 million contract for the Shell Island East project, now underway. And back in September 2011, the company landed a $43 million CPRA, Pelican Island-restoration contract, funded by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

GLDD has pumped river sand to Scofield Island, located west of Boothville on the Mississippi River, to restore shrinking dunes. Erosion accelerated in October 2002, when Hurricane Lili struck, according to GLDD. Under the current project, 238 acres of beach and dunes and 398 acres of marsh are being created, with marsh built behind the dunes. The area is expected to provide wetland habitat. The 6-foot high dunes are 640 feet wide and span more than two miles of shoreline.

Eustis said despite widespread criticism in 2010, "the berm projects led to monies being devoted to the barrier island restoration plan of the Louisiana Coastal Area program."

As for the rebuilt islands, he said "we've visited these sites by boat and plane and they've been full of bird life. But sometimes they're underplanted. Vegetation is often the first thing cut from the budget of these projects. And vegetation can be wiped out in storms."

Eustis continued "we support the adoption of innovative planting technologies from groups like Restore the Earth to establish strong plant roots quickly." New York- based Restore the Earth Foundation, its partners and volunteers have placed Gulf Saver Bags--packages of native marsh grasses with nutrients and oil-eating micro-organisms--in Louisiana marshes. The bags decompose in three months and the roots expand, holding sediment together.

Eustis discussed the role of the river in protecting the coast. He said "the islands depend on concurrent restoration of the marshes and long-term restoration of the river to have a chance against sea-level rise." Levees and dams along the Mississippi River trap sediment before they reach the coastal plains.

He said "building islands and marshes with dredges is very quick but also very expensive. Building land with the river is cheaper over a longer timetable. The river, however, must be restored to its proper role as a yearly source of sediment to these rebuilt lands."

Eustis noted that dredging costs have risen since Katrina, and said CPRA has examined way to control costs, possibly by signing long-term contracts with dredgers. Johanson said "long-term dredging contracts are a long-term CPRA goal." Years-out contracts haven't been available under recent project funding, Johanson said.

Money is suddenly pouring in for the state's coastal restoration, making long-term dredging contracts more feasible, however.

Eustis commented on dredging and fuel costs, saying "we and the Lake Pontchartrain Basin Foundation have advocated for use of dredges that burn natural gas rather than diesel fuel, to lower fossil fuels emitted and costs." Louisiana is the nation's second largest producer of natural gas, following Texas.

At this time, Dredge California, owned by GLDD, is working between Miles 23 and 24 on the Lower Mississippi River. A sand pipeline extends along the seabed from there to Mile 29, crossing into the Empire Waterway and continuing to Shell Island East. Three booster stations, situated at intervals to ensure the flow of sand along the pipeline, are located in the Empire Waterway. Mariners have been asked to transit these areas slowly.

GLDD subcontractor Bean Dredging, based in Belle Chasse, built containment dikes at Shell Island, Johanson said.

In a quarterly earnings report in March, Jonathan Berger, CEO of Great Lakes Dredge & Dock, said the BP spill has generated funds for the coast. "Criminal and civil penalties settled to date, related to the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, should result in over $1.5 billion being directed to coastal restoration in the Gulf," he said. "Additional BP civil penalties could further increase funding in the Gulf."

Garret Graves said the state has pivoted off its 2010 berms by fortifying them to advance coastal restoration. "Sediment from the berms will continue to protect us," he said last week. "These barrier islands will help prevent re-oiling from the one-million-plus barrels of BP oil that remain in the Gulf." Graves added that BP refuses to clean up that oil. end