ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
For the last couple of days, heavy oil from the spill has started showing up in Louisiana's wetlands.
As NPR's Elizabeth Shogren reports, politicians and environmentalists there want the federal government to okay a herculean effort to keep the oil out of their marshes.
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ELIZABETH SHOGREN: Sticky globs of oil that looked like melted caramels have been showing up by the thousands on the beach at Port Fourchon, about 60 miles south of New Orleans. It's the hub of the offshore oil industry, a long skinny stretch of sand here helps protect an intricate web of marshes behind it.
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SHOGREN: National Guard troops are working day and night trying to fill gaps created in the beach by recent hurricanes, which let Gulf waters flow into the marshes. The beach is busy with supersized dump trucks unloading sand, helicopters hoisting gigantic sandbags and backhoes lifting giant boulders.
Chett Chiasson is the director of Port Fourchon.
Mr. CHETT CHIASSON (Director, Port Fourchon): We need to close all these breaches because sand is much easier to clean than marsh.
SHOGREN: Now, Louisiana officials are trying to win approval for a colossal version of what's going on here. They want to turn the three chains of barrier islands off their coast into incredibly long sandbars. Together, they might stretch more than 80 miles. Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal says the idea is that the oil would collect behind these walls of sand, so cleanup crews could suck it up before it gets into the marshes.
Governor BOBBY JINDAL (Republican, Louisiana): It's much easier for us to fight that oil outside these barrier islands than have to fight it on the inside, where we have fragile weapons.
SHOGREN: Engineers and scientists are furiously working on plans to dredge sand from the Gulf and pump it through 30-inch pipes to where crews will build these berms. But before they can start, they need federal approval.
Mr. GARRET GRAVES (Director, Louisiana Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority): We need to get this acted on as quickly as possible because we're going to have to mobilize the dredges and we're going to have to get the pipeline infrastructure set up to actually get the sand out to the islands.
SHOGREN: Garret Graves heads Louisiana's Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority. He says, so far, weather and currents have kept most of the oil out of the coastal marshes, but that could change, especially with tropical storm season just around the corner.
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SHOGREN: Graves is standing on the banks of the Rigolets, a tidal path that connects the Gulf with a massive estuary called Lake Pontchartrain. Sandbars would help prevent oily storm surges from flowing through here, into one of the country's most productive nurseries for seafood.
Mr. GRAVES: Over 90 percent of life in the Gulf of Mexico is dependent upon this estuary at some point in its life for existence, for survival. And so the oil getting into this area, getting into our wetlands, you know, we would be experiencing repercussions for years and years to come, and if not decades.
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SHOGREN: Denise Reed agrees. She's an environmental science professor at the University of New Orleans, which sits on the shores of Lake Pontchartrain. As she looks over the vast estuary, Reed says there would be no fix if oil inundates the wetlands.
Dr. DENISE REED (Environmental Science, University of New Orleans): You can't freshly wash oil off of these marshes in these parts. You even go up there and try to do manual cleanup in many of these systems, you're going to cause more damage than you are just letting it be.
SHOGREN: A big rush of oil could kill the plants and turn the marsh into open water. But Reed isn't sold yet on the state's plan. For one thing, marsh plants can protect themselves from a little bit of oil.
Dr. REED: Some part of the surface of the plant can be damaged and it might be able to put up new shoots. It also might look really bad this year, but come back next year.
SHOGREN: She says there are lots of things that should be considered before the plan is launched. For one, the sandbars would dramatically change natural systems, like tides. And it's hard to predict the consequences. For instance, wide swaths of open water would become narrow passes.
Dr. REED: What happens is the same amount of water is still trying to go in and out. It means it goes really fast. And, you know, who knows, there's maybe even a potential to kind of carry the oil in even more forcefully than it might otherwise happen.
SHOGREN: She says in the estuary lots of marine animals regularly move from the wetlands to the open water and back.
Dr. REED: What kind of speed of water they can tolerate, you know, whether they get taken into places that they wouldn't otherwise want to go to, I think is something that we're not quite sure about yet.
SHOGREN: Federal officials are racing to try to answer these questions and many others before approving the project. And since BP would pay some of the hundreds of millions of dollars it would cost, company executives are hoping a cheaper solution is found before this one gets the okay.
Elizabeth Shogren, NPR News.