Photo by Brian Merchant
After the press jumped on the fact that the first attempt to seal the gushing oil leak with an underwater oil containment dome had failed, other noteworthy news receded into the background: Namely, Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal's new plan to fight the giant incoming oil slick by dumping dredged materials across the barrier islands off the coast. He says this would strengthen existing islands, and even create brand new ones--but at what cost?
Build Islands, at a Time Like This?
Well, the monetary cost is one thing--the governor said that it would cost "hundreds of millions of dollars" if the plan was given the go ahead. Twelve sites have already been selected for the dredging, and the plans have been sent to the federal government for "quick approval."
Jindal was optimistic that it would have both short and long term benefits--keeping large swaths of oil from entering Louisiana's fragile marshlands, and strengthening the barrier islands' ability to shield the coast from storms. Those islands have been eroding away at an alarming rate--up to 100 feet vanish a year, according to one US Geological Survey report.
NOAA map showing projected oil impacts on islands for Tuesday. New islands are proposed in Chandeleur Sound, around red oil impact marks.
He took pains to note that a similar plan has actually been on the drawing board for three years now, and that the oil spill makes the need to approve them even more acute. However, such an operation shouldn't be taken lightly, as it's the cost to the environment that should be more carefully considered--it's got some potentially devastating side effects. And yet, after Jindal announced the plan at a press conference I attended in Venice, LA, attention shifted immediately to the failed containment box, and the plan wasn't even questioned.
Could be Dredging for Trouble
What Jindal is talking about is essentially a form of what's commonly referred to as beach nourishment. Which is shiny terminology for shipping in sand or sediment from other locations to drop on threatened or eroding beaches. It's already a fairly common practice--the federal government already spends some $50-100 million a year "nourishing" beaches in places like California and Virginia. Although in this case, nourishment seems like an understatement--"beach creation" is more apt.
Louisiana's coastal barrier islands. Image via IAE
So what's the problem? Well, just picture what needs to be done to make this happen: First, material needs to be dredged from the selected locations. Which means, tons of mud needs to be dug up form another ecosystem, and this can can be disruptive, even toxic to local wildlife. It can cause a number of problems to the local food chain as well. And then, all that material needs to be dumped on the new location--again disrupting the already existing habitats.
And these barrier islands that Jindal proposes strengthening are indeed home to fragile ecosystems and threatened species like the brown pelican, Louisiana's state bird. In other words, there could be a bevy of side effects that nobody's hearing about in this island-creation scheme. Which isn't to say the plan should be ruled out--just that a careful cost-benefit analysis regarding the effected environment should be carried out before the governor builds a chain of brand new islands.
I'm traveling around the Gulf of Mexico reporting on the continuing oil crisis. Stay tuned for the latest developments and reports from the scene.