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Scientist Warns Sand Berms Won't Last

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Scientist Warns Sand Berms Won't Last


Scientist Warns Sand Berms Won't Last

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  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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Dredging is about to begin in the Gulf to build some 40 miles of sand berms to try to stop some of the oil from reaching the Louisiana coast. We've been hearing loud calls from Governor Bobby Jindal and local officials pleading for that construction to get under way and blaming federal officials for dragging their feet.

But lots of scientists who spent decades studying the fragile Mississippi delta aren't sold on the berm idea, and they worry those berms could make things even worse.

Rob Young is a coastal geologist at Western Carolina University. He's been working in the Gulf for about 20 years. Welcome to the program.

P: Thank you very much.

BLOCK: I've been looking at emails from some of your fellow scientists, and I've seen these berms referred to as sandy Band-Aids and a half-baked scheme. What do you think about them?

P: Well, I'm definitely concerned about the efficacy of the project. You know, the big question is: Will the berms prevent oil from entering the estuary and the wetlands behind the barrier islands? And, you know, if the berms were going to be effective, then any of the environmental concerns or the costs, of course, become secondary in light of this tremendous catastrophe.

But I have some real concerns about whether this project will work and that's an important objection.

BLOCK: Well, what are those concerns? What are the biggest environmental risks that you also see attached to this?

P: Well, the primary concerns about the efficacy are, you know, can we build this structure quickly enough to make a difference? Estimates range from six to nine months or more. And in the meantime, oil is going to be making its way into the wetlands. And in addition, they're building these sandbars offshore of the barrier islands. They're not putting the sand on the barrier island, or at least that's how it's planned in the permit. And I don't think it's going to last.

I've spent my career studying storms and storm impacts, and the structure that I see that they're planning to build is going to begin to erode as soon as it's constructed. And it's going to have a tough time making it through a hurricane season that's predicted to be a fairly active one. So I just don't have a very high level of confidence that a project that's going to require a lot of energy and a lot of sand and mobilize a lot of people is going to do what they promise it will do.

BLOCK: I've seen this argument, too, that creating these berms could mean that the wave action increases. And actually, oil could be carried farther inland faster into areas it might not have reached otherwise.

P: Well, you know, I think that this points to the fact that we don't really know what the unintended impacts of building a structure of this size will be, especially if the governor's office is allowed to complete a 100-plus mile berm that wraps around most of coastal Louisiana, which is what they'd really like to do. We don't really know how that structure may impact storm surge or waves or currents. And that's the big problem that I have with the process here.

The oil spill is going to be with us for years, not days. So it seems like spending a little time right now to put together a process for better but still rapid scientific review would be worth the trouble.

BLOCK: And you think there is that time to spend. I mean, obviously, the oil is penetrating right now. You can understand the urgency that Governor Jindal and others feel about getting this project under way.

P: Believe me, I do understand the urgency. And I hate being viewed as someone who might be attempting to obstruct the action to protect and save that coast. I mean, I'm just heartbroken and furious about the impacts of this particular spill.

I mean, every morning when I wake up, I'm not sure whether to call somebody in anger or to cry or to throw up. But doing something just to be looking like you're doing something is not the right thing to do.

BLOCK: Rob Young, thanks for talking with us.

P: It's been my pleasure, thank you.

BLOCK: Rob Young is a professor of geology at Western Carolina University. He spoke with us from Asheville.

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