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Scientists team up to attack Louisiana's Gulf oil spill berm plan

Louisiana is moving ahead with its plan to build 40 miles of berms to protect its coastline from the Gulf oil spill. The problem is, it won't work and might make things worse, scientists say.

By Staff writer / July 23, 2010

Workers discuss the berm system on the northern end of Louisiana's Chandeleur Islands on July 15, 2010. Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal visited the site and said the berm system was working to keep the Gulf oil spill off the islands.

Dave Martin/AP

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A group of prominent coastal scientists is calling for a halt to large-scale engineering projects – like Louisiana's berm plan – aimed at protecting wetlands from encroaching oil from the Gulf oil spill. They want experts to have time to review the longer-term effects these projects could have on the natural processes that sculpt and sustain the coastline.

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The danger, they argue, is that the projects will siphon cash from more cost-effective approaches to dealing with the oil, such as expanded use of skimmers and booms. Moreover, the projects could well waste the relatively small amounts of offshore sand that was to be used to build up the Mississippi Delta and slow its long-term erosion.

The call came in an open letter to retired Coast Guard Adm. Thad Allen, who heads the oil spill response effort. The letter was released July 21 and signed by 21 researchers from coastal-studies institutes in the Gulf region as well as around the country.

IN PICTURES: The Gulf oil spill's impact on nature

The Louisiana berm project involves building 40 miles of sand berms to augment what remains of once robust barrier islands. The letter also targets projects that have emerged in other Gulf states and which reportedly have not received approval from any state or federal regulators.

'Armored' berms?

State and local officials in Louisiana have begun talking about "armoring" berms the state builds. Workers would add large boulders or plant grasses to stabilize the berms and reduce the pace of erosion the berms would face.

"That's a completely different ball game," says Robert Young, a researcher who heads the Program for the Study of Developed Coastlines at Western Carolina University and a driving force behind the call for a pause in spill-related coastal engineering projects.

Armoring would convert the berms from a short-term tool for blocking oil to a longer-term change in the coastal landscape. Such changes could alter currents, alter the quality of seawater behind the berms, and movement of sediment along the coast in ways that could affect the health of the coastline at locations beyond the site of the berm itself.

The group says no additional long, expensive studies are needed; a large body of results already exists to better inform decisions on whether to pursue such projects.

But to this point, projects that have garnered formal approval have received it on an emergency basis, without the careful analysis the state or federal laws would otherwise require.

Louisiana: It's working

The biggest projects so far belong to the state of Louisiana. For their part, state officials say that the berm plan – even in its partially completed state – has been successful.

Last week, in surveying a berm-building project along the northern stretch of the Chandeleur Islands, Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal noted that during one day the previous week, 500 pounds of oil-soaked debris had been collected from the berm.

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