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Politics Buried Science in Louisiana Sand Berms, Oil Commission Finds

17 December 2010 5:57 pm
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The idea to guard against this year's BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico by building offshore sand berms was controversial from the start, and scientists voiced many concerns about the project. A new report (pdf) from a presidential commission investigating the spill now reveals how intense political pressure overrode experts' concerns that the berms would be ineffective--which ultimately proved correct.

Although Louisiana's governor, Bobby Jindal, has publicly declared success, the report, released yesterday, concludes otherwise. "From the perspective of the Commission staff, however, $220 million for a spill response measure that trapped not much more than 1,000 barrels of oil is not a compelling cost-benefit tradeoff," it says.

The sand berm concept originated with a Dutch engineering and dredging company, which pitched it to Louisiana officials in May. They enthusiastically embraced it, in part because they had been trying for a decade without success to get funding for adding sand to eroding barrier islands. As investigators with the commission state: "The spill presented an opportunity for state and parish officials to facilitate construction of a large-scale, temporary oil spill response measure whose purpose might, they believed, 'pivot' to permanent restoration of Louisiana's barrier islands - with BP footing the bill."

State officials requested permission from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to build 128 miles of berms, 300 feet wide and 6 feet high. The massive project would require 102 million cubic yards of dredge material. When the Corps consulted with the Department of the Interior and the Environmental Protection Agency, experts were extremely skeptical that the berms could be built in time to catch much oil. They also worried that the berms would alter currents and potentially lead to even more erosion of the barrier islands. Even when the proposal was modified to reduce the chance of harm, the advisory group of federal experts remained dubious.

But Jindal and other Louisiana officials continued to demand action on the berms. Retired Coast Guard Admiral Thad Allen, head of the national response team, was ready to cut a deal, the commission found:

On May 22, Admiral Allen sent the following e-mail to his Chief of Staff and the Deputy National Incident Commander: "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 Jindal this weekend?"

Permission to build a prototype berm was announced on 27 May, but both senators from Louisiana pushed for more. "Approving 2% of the request and kicking the rest months down the road is outrageous, absolutely outrageous," Senator David Vitter (R-LA) said.

The crucial event was a 2-hour meeting in Louisiana on 28 May with President Barack Obama, Allen, Jindal, and other Louisiana officials. After getting an earful about the need for more berms, Obama asked Allen to convene another group of experts to evaluate the proposal. On 1 June, about 100 scientists and officials gathered in New Orleans. Most of the experts were not impressed with the chances of the berms capturing much oil, the commission report recounts. But they also didn't think the berms would be more harmful than the oil itself.

According to the summit moderator, "you could tell most of [the experts] were not keen on the idea," but when Admiral Allen posed the "net benefit question" at the end of the meeting, the panelists "were tired of getting beat up" by the project's proponents and "hedged their bets." None of the panelists was willing to say that the berms "were going to be worse than the oil going ashore."

The next day, Allen approved the entire berm project. The dredging dragged on, delayed by weather and other problems. Some scientists continue to express worries that the berms were ineffective and might cause unanticipated problems in the gulf. The state was in the final stages of the project this month. With just 1000 barrels of oil collected—compared with as much as 1.85 million collected via other methods—the presidential commission concludes that the berms "were not a success." The reason they got built, the commission concludes, is because politics got the best of science:

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. The Command tried to keep the Interagency Solutions Group "immune" from non-scientific considerations, but the Group does not seem to have been fully insulated. Despite its initial opposition to the berms project, it fell in line with the prototype idea conceived by Admiral Allen. Although many of the experts at the hastily-organized berms summit on June 1 were independent and objective, as one scientist in attendance put it, "politics got ahead of the science."

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