Louisiana Argues Over Who Pays For Sandbars

Coast Guard Admiral Thad Allen approved part of Louisiana's $350 million plan to ring its coastline with a wall of sand to block off oil from the massive spill. But the government is only forcing BP to pay for a two-mile stretch of the sand bars. Gov. Jindal says BP should pay for the whole project. The fight over money is delaying the state's best hope of saving its marshes.

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The State of Louisiana wants to protect its fragile marshes from this encroaching oil. They feel the best way to do it is to build massive sandbars. The federal government has now approved the first small section of that project, but Governor Bobby Jindal says the federal government is doing too little, moving too slowly.

NPR's Elizabeth Shogren reports.

ELIZABETH SHOGREN: What the state wants is to pile up enormous amounts of sand along nearly hundred miles of its barrier islands, to prevent the oil from inundating the marshes that are the nursery for the Gulf. What it got is a promise to make BP pay for a two mile section.

During his White House press conference yesterday, President Obama cited the decision as an example of how the federal government is ready to do whatever is necessary to protect the Gulf Coast.

President BARACK OBAMA: It'll be built in an area where it is most at risk and where the work can be most quickly completed.

SHOGREN: But at another press conference on a Louisiana island where oil has been washing up for two weeks, a sweaty Governor Bobby Jindal seemed agitated. He stressed that the federal government already wasted two weeks making this decision.

Governor BOBBY JINDAL (Republican, Louisiana): We could have built nearly 10 miles, nearly 10 miles of that sand boom by now already - six feet high.

SHOGREN: In fact, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers did give Louisiana permission for five additional segments, totaling almost 40 miles. But there was a big catch - the state would have to pay. Jindal says Washington should force BP to pay for the entire project.

Gov. JINDAL: BP causes damage; BP should be responsible for paying to protect Louisiana. Our government doesn't need to be making excuses for BP.

SHOGREN: Jindal says Coast Guard officials told him the first segment would be a trial and they would make BP pay for more segments if the first one works. But Jindal says it's urgent to move fast because the marshes supply the state's $2 billion-a-year fishing industry.

Scientists and engineers share Jindal's concerns. Already, gooey oil has encircled islands where brown pelicans are sitting on their nests. A few drops of oil on an egg can be lethal, and enough oil would kill the marshes themselves and turn them into open water.

Mr. ABBY SALINGER (Oceanographer, U.S. Geological Survey): We have to be able to do what we can do to stop that from happening.

SHOGREN: U.S. Geological Survey oceanographer, Abby Salinger, is an expert on Louisiana's Barrier Islands. He's one of the federal scientists who think there are merits to the state's plan, but also see potential risks because the enormous scale of the project. They've been peppering the state with lots of questions, like this one:

Professor TONY DALRYMPLE (Coastal Engineering, Johns Hopkins University): Can you built it fast enough so it's there to capture the oil?

SHOGREN: Tony Dalrymple doesn't think so. He's a coastal engineer from Johns Hopkins University.

Prof. DALRYMPLE: I think that by the time this thing would be completed it would be too late.

SHOGREN: But coastal ecologist Robert Twilley says even small pieces of the project can be helpful. The state can build the sand walls first in areas where the oil is showing up and the marsh is seen most vulnerable.

Professor ROBERT TWILLEY (Coastal Ecologist, Louisiana State University): Remember, we don't even know how this crisis is going to play out.

SHOGREN: Twilley is a Louisiana State University professor and a senior scientific advisor to the state. Even he is torn about the project. He worries that the sand bars are just temporary and building them could use up the sand needed to restore the islands.

Prof. TWILLEY: I would hate to see us waste a lot of money, move a lot of sand and then the current just drifts it away. That doesn't do any good for the oil urgency that we have or the firm system we need for hurricane protection. That's my nightmare.

SHOGREN: Some other scientists are questioning whether the sandbars could reduce the flow of water in and out of the wetlands. But the senior statesman of coastal engineers, Robert Dean from the University of Florida, plays down that concern.

Professor ROBERT DEAN (Coastal Engineer, University of Florida): You know, the berm is going to be such a small feature compared to the Gulf of Mexico.

SHOGREN: Dean says if the tradeoff is between temporarily changing the salinity of the marshes or letting them get inundated with oil, he'd keep the oil out.

Elizabeth Shogren, NPR News.

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