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Gulf oil spill: Should the U.S. Army Corps start dredging?

May 20, 2010 |  1:41 pm
Oil booms
Should the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, long the bête noire of environmentalists, undertake a massive dredging project to protect Louisiana from the oil spill? Some ecologists are dubious, but Louisiana officials are stepping up pressure on the Corps to act soon.

The Louisiana Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority filed for an emergency permit on May 11 for the $350-million project, asking the Corps to build sand piles along the gulf side of the Chandeleurs and other barrier islands. A Corps spokesman said that the request is "a top priority" but that the agency is "currently evaluating all of this information for potential environmental effects" as required by law.

"The Corps just doesn't get it," Sen. David Vitter (R-La.) said Thursday. "The regular Corps timetable won't work. Thick oil has already gotten behind our existing barrier islands and is infiltrating our marsh. Yet the Corps is showing no sense of urgency."

Louisiana Republican Gov. Bobby Jindal also called on the Corps to approve the plan, saying that the booms placed along the shore were not enough to protect it from the oil that has been gushing from a BP well since an April 20 blowout. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, more than 34 miles of Louisiana shoreline has suffered from oil slicks and tar balls.

Barrier islands are fragile ecosystems, however, and the effect of dredging is unclear. The Corps is consulting with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

John Lopez, coastal program director for the Lake Pontchartrain Basin Foundation, told Bloomberg News that "our position so far has been to be sure they engage the appropriate coastal scientists and engineers" because dredging could possibly do "more harm" than good.

Congressional pressure on the Corps is high. "I've been pushing the administration and the Corps daily in meetings, conference calls and hearings for the approval of this barrier island plan for almost two weeks," said Vitter, a member of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, which has jurisdiction over the Corps. "I'll be redoubling my efforts with calls today to Adm. Thad Allen [of the Coast Guard] and Lt. Gen. Robert Van Antwerp to continue beating the drum." Antwerp is the commanding general of the Army Corps of Engineers.

Louisiana provides about a third of the seafood in the lower 48 states at a value of some $2.85 billion a year.

--Margot Roosevelt

Photo: Oil booms along the Louisiana shore may not be enough to protect the ecologically rich coastline. Louisiana officials want the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to build sand barriers. Credit: Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times

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