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The Case Against Sand Berms June 3, 2010

Posted by Jamie Friedland in Congress, Offshore Drilling, Politics.
Tags: , , , , , , , , , , ,

As it becomes more and more clear that the multi-month relief wells are the only permanent solution, it becomes more certain that the Deepwater Horizon oil gusher will flow for months to come.  Containment may be or may not be successful and we know there is a lot of oil traveling beneath the surface, where it cannot be skimmed or burned and oil booms cannot even attempt to stop it.

In light of this situation, some have proposed building “berms,” giant levees of sand, in front of miles of sensitive coastline.  Even underwater oil cannot go beneath a berm.

Last week, the administration approved plans for six berm sites in the Chandeleur Islands aka Brenton National Wildlife Refuge. It has only committed to funding one so far, waiting to see if the $16 million project it worth replicating.  The money will come from either BP or the Federal Oil Spill Liability Trust Fund.

Note: the House recently passed legislation to raise the tax that feeds that trust fund from 8 cents/barrel to 32 cents/barrel.  The Senate has yet to act (shocking).

First, some background on barrier islands, courtesy of the wonderful blog ThroughTheSandGlass (which ironically linked my blog while I was literally writing this), written by geologist Michael Welland:

“Barrier islands are perhaps the most dynamic and ephemeral landforms on the planet, and imagery of the Chandeleurs vividly illustrates this. Even under natural conditions, the architecture and position of barrier islands are constantly changing – maps and charts are out of date by the time they are printed. The fundamental architecture and features of barrier islands is illustrated here (from the University of Texas glossary).

The complexity results from the interactions of tides, both coming and going, waves, currents, storms, sand supply and so on. And, as in the case of the Chandeleurs, this complexity is only enhanced by human interference – the need for constant dredging of shipping channels in the Mississippi Delta has essentially starved the islands of sand.

…The Chandeleur Islands have had a torrid history and today are but a shadow of their former selves.”

In principle, building sand berms should work. It is much easier to clean oil off of sand than out of marshes. Similar plans (for different purposes) have been planned for years and small-scale projects have been successful in the past.

So what have we been waiting for?  Unfortunately, it’s not that simple.  Since state officials submitted the plan on May 11, experts have expressed significant concern:

I understand that time is of the essence, but I really think that we’re taking a gamble here.” -Dr. Gregory Stone, director of the Coastal Studies Institute at LSU.

The Plan:

On May 27, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers issued an emergency permit authorizing the construction of 45 miles of sand berm.  Original proposals sought 128 miles of barriers, and additional sections may be authorized pending the success of the first phase.

These berms will be 300 feet wide at the base, narrowing as they rise up to a height 6 feet above the water and 20 feet across the top.

This graphic was published on My 22 so it is not entirely accurate for the approved proposal, but it does give you a sense of the scope for this project.


The application estimates the cost of the project at $3.8 million per mile, or $171 million for the initial 45-mile phase.  This is a deceptively low number; including the money that has already been spent mobilizing for a similar project to rebuild the Chandeleurs, the total price tag is likely closer to $500 million.

BP has agreed to pay an estimated $360 million for sand berm construction.

Will it work?

Below is an excerpt from a June 3 post at Yale’s e360 blog:

“A project that could cost as much as a half-billion dollars should warrant serious review. Yet it has been very difficult to find a public record or details of the proposed project design and how it was vetted. Obviously, there was never any intention to solicit public comment. This may be appropriate in an emergency, but it begs the question: Who designed the project? Have they used the best available science? And will it work as advertised?

The state of Louisiana has a wealth of fine coastal scientists who have been working on the coastal restoration of the Louisiana delta region for decades. Yet those who I have spoken with have indicated that they have not been consulted on the project. I have yet to speak to a scientist who thinks the project will be effective. The Corps of Engineers gave agencies, such as the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), less than a day to submit comments on the proposal after it was presented to the agencies during a teleconference on May 17. Certainly, the agencies had very little time to scientifically evaluate the potential environmental impacts of such a massive project, but in their brief submissions the agencies expressed major concerns.

The Department of Interior indicated that “we do not think the risks inherent in proceeding without more environmental study and knowledge are acceptable.”

The EPA directly questioned the proposed berm’s effectiveness, suggesting there is no evidence that the project will stop oil from entering the marshes and estuaries because it is constructed only in front of the barrier islands and will not block the inlets and deepwater passes. In addition, EPA questioned whether a project that will take at least 6 to 9 months to build would be completed in time to have any impact on the spill.”


This is a massive undertaking. Dredging up this much sand takes a long time. The EPA projected that this plan may not be completed for at least 6-9 months, and oil is already onshore. Even if we had started on Day 1, this project would not have been completed in time to protect the Mississippi Delta.

Additionally, erosion is expected to wear the wall away within months.  And that could happen even sooner if tropical storms come through the area, which I’m pretty sure they have been known to do.

Hurricane Forecast: [Bleak]

Incidentally, NOAA’s hurricane forecast was released on the same day that this project was approved last week.  They are expecting an “active to extremely active” season:

  • 14-23 Named Storms (top winds 39+ mph)
  • 8-14 Hurricanes (top winds 74+ mph)
  • 3-7 Major Hurricanes (category 3-5)

That includes a 95% chance of 2 Gulf hurricanes and a 50% chance of a Gulf hurricane in June or July.  Not good.

Sand Resources:

To build all the sand berms Louisiana officials have demanded, it has been estimated that the project would require 56 million cubic yards of sand – enough to fill 11.2 Superdomes.

And remember, that sand is coming from a river delta starved of sediment:

“Just think of digging 11 Superdome-sized holes in the delta you’re trying to save.  It seems counterintuitive.”  -Dr. Len Bahr, a coastal expert who founded the LaCoastPost blog.

Since we’ve been throwing huge numbers around for over a month now, let’s put that in the context of the oil spill.  56 million cubic yards of sand would fill nearly 270,000,000 oil barrels with more than 10 trillion gallons of sand.

The sand placed in these berms, while effective at stopping oil for a a few months, would be quickly eroded by normal wave action.  Berm lifetimes will be drastically reduced if struck by a hurricane.

Once sand is washed away from these berms, it cannot be used again for restoration purposes. Sand for these projects can only be dredged from certain places that have the right concentration of high-quality sand and that are far enough offshore that the dredging and deepening of waterways will not cause excessive damage (dredging destroys benthic life on the seafloor and deepening waterways can affect hydrology and even strengthen hurricanes and storm surges if conducted too close to shore).  Sand that washes off of berms is unlikely to end up in an area where it can be recaptured.  Additionally*, any sand that comes in contact with oil will be unusable in the future.

*Update: Thanks yet again to Mr. Welland at ThroughTheSandGlass for confirming the previously undocumented first point and offering the second explanation as well.

Louisiana’s limited sand resources present an additional problem because there have been longstanding plans to properly rebuild the Chandeleur islands (as opposed to dropping sand in front of them) that could be blocked by this project:

“If we use the good sand that we have for this quick-and-dirty berm, and a storm comes in and spreads it around, we’ve lost the major sand resource that we wanted to use for barrier-island restoration. We could compromise the long-term restoration of the coast for a short-term gain.” –Dr. Denise Reed, wetlands ecologist, University of New Orleans.

If even that.

It has been difficult to evaluate this plan because it has been changing constantly since its submission.  As submitted, the plan called for sand to be dredged from just one mile directly in front of the islands themselves.  Geologists and several government agencies objected because those trenches could actually accelerate land loss through not one, but two different mechanisms!

Obviously, this sudden tragedy demands swift action, but reckless plans can do more harm than good.  If this is the kind of planning that went into this proposal, I am very glad the Corps took some time to review and amend the plan.

The approved plan has identified six potential “borrow areas” (a euphemistic misnomer, because that sand will never be returned) that are 20-100 miles from the berm sites.  This is no quick project.

Water Flow:

Barrier islands such as the Chandeleurs form with wide natural channels between them. This is what allows inland bays and wetlands to fill and drain each day with normal tidal action.  In order to fully protect the marshes from oil, these passes would have to be closed off entirely, but that would wreak havoc on the region’s hydrology.

Closing off those channels would greatly harm many of the species the berms seek to protect. Many of these animals’ lifecycles demand that they move into and out of the coastal wetlands through those channels, and their daily lives revolve around tidal rhythms.

So why not just close a few of them?  This is what will be done, but it presents its own problems.  If just sand were used to plug those channels, it would be washed away immediately, so the channels will have to be lined with rigid structures.  As the openings narrow (or become fewer in number), the massive influx of tidal water through smaller openings will cause more powerful currents to form; if any oil does enter through these openings, it will be sent shooting much further inland towards/into sensitive estuaries.  Oil could even become trapped there, with its exit out of the estuary blocked by berms.  There is additional concern that the altered water flow may send oil east into the Mississippi Sound.

Political Considerations:

Two Republicans, Plaquemines Parish president Billy Nungesser and Lousianna Gov. Bobby Jindal (famous for his role as Kenneth the Page on NBC’s 30Rock), have been the loudest cheerleaders for this project.  Since the beginning of the spill, these two have been stomping their feet and demanding sand berms.  Critics accuse them of political grandstanding:

“We could have built 10 miles of sand boom already if [the feds] would have approved our permit when we originally requested it.” –Bobby Jindal.

“The federal government has got to move on this and BP has got to pay for it. Without closing as many gaps as possible, we’re going to get oil in the marshes.” –Billy Nungesser

I feel like I’m chastising children, and only partially because of their names: Bobby, blindly rubberstamping permits for large projects in the Gulf  is what got us into this mess.  The Army Corps of Engineers was not twiddling its thumbs, just letting your proposal sit there.  It was reviewing it as best it could and they caught a number of significant errors.  It is justifiable to exercise caution when considering a massive project with uncertain effects.  Billy, “closing gaps” in the barrier islands comes with its own concerns (outlined above).  Now run along and play nice.

Louisiana state officials have been trying to secure federal funding to rebuild the Chandeleur Islands since Hurricane Katrina literally destroyed them in 2005.  Jindal et al. are tapping into existing support and, to be fair, preparation for a much broader restoration plan for those barrier islands. Denise Reed at UNO put it, “There are six words to describe what people in [coastal Louisiana] want: barrier islands, barrier islands, barrier islands.”  But Reed is quick to clarify, “This [proposal] is not barrier island restoration.

The Chandeleur Islands before and after Hurricane Katrina. Louisiana officials have been planning to rebuild them in a similar manner for years, but that project and this temporary berm project are different and possibly even mutually exclusive.

The current, temporary berm proposal and the goal of long-term barrier island restoration have been largely conflated in the local, populist push for action.  But they are quite different. Especially because these temporary berms could use up valuable sand resources upon which the restoration project relies.

States’ Rights

While the Army Corps investigated actual policy concerns, Louisiana officials resorted to a different type of rabblerousing: they turned this into a states’ rights issue.  LA Attorney General Buddy Caldwell sent a letter to the Army Corps telling them Louisiana was within its rights to build the berms because the federal government does not have the legal authority do deny a state its right to conduct emergency operations.

As I understand it, the federal government wasn’t stopping Louisiana from doing anything at all – it was withholding federal money from a project that they weren’t sure was a good investment yet.  Jindal’s tantrum wasn’t about him not being able to act, it was about him not being able to get someone else to pay.  That’s not quite as presidential.


Gloria Borger wrote a column yesterday entitled, “We got the president we elected.

“He was elected because he is cool, calm and analytical. That’s what we wanted to see after George W. Bush, so we made him president. But now the disaster in the Gulf has made many of us want to see someone else — with plenty of anger, emotion and bravado. We want him to yell at BP. We want him to loudly tell us he’s whipping the cleanup effort into shape.

We can’t tell BP ourselves, so we want him to do it for us.

Fair enough. But that’s not the person we elected.”

We don’t yet know the whole story of the administration’s internal response to this catastrophe.  It certainly appears from the outside like they were slow to react and fully engage.  In this case, though, I think they got it right in waiting to approve the plan.  I hope they waited long enough.  Time will tell.

If sand berms prove to be an effective bulwark against oil for the wetlands of Louisiana, I will wholeheartedly support this project.  But this plan has many unknowns – not just about its efficacy but even in regard to the ecological systems it seeks to protect – so caution was and is the correct course.

It is nice to be able to say that we are doing something, but I hope that it is the right thing to do and not action for action’s sake.  I am not convinced that this is the case.

The following is an excerpt from the Army Corps permit itself (thanks to Mr. Welland at ThroughTheSandGlass for pointing it out) :

“We understand that the BP oil drilling disaster is a disaster of unprecedented proportions. However, we are concerned that Louisiana is proposing to have such a large project covered under a general permit (NOD 20). General permits are intended to have negligible impacts individually and cumulatively, however this project will certainly have impacts that would normally require a full Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA). While we acknowledge that this disaster requires regulatory flexibility, general permits were never intended to address massive projects with potentially significant environmental impacts. We find the precedent set by this action disturbing.

This is a big gamble.  For half a billion dollars, even of BP’s money, we better have more to show for this project than wasted sand beneath the waves and oil in the wetlands.  I would imagine $500 million could buy a lot more oil mitigation progress in other ways.

Full list of oil spill questions and answers here.  Check this out for more information on oil-eating bacteria.


1. Michael - June 3, 2010

Jamie – lots more interest and important stuff here – I’ll link back to it from my blog. To answer the question about the re-use of sand, I think there are two reasons:

1. When it washes away it won’t go to places that are appropriate for dredging.

2. If it’s already saturated with oil, then it’s of no use – and it will pollute wherever it goes to.

Jamie Friedland - June 3, 2010

Thanks! *updated*

2. Coast Guard stops oil sucking barges from doing their jobs - Page 2 - TideFans.com - June 22, 2010

[…] I looked for a decent overview that should be freely accessible and came up with this: The Case Against Sand Berms […]

3. Cowboy - August 30, 2010

In the interest of fair and full disclosure regarding the article…

Jamie Friedland was appointed an intern in the Obama Whitehouse in the fall of 2009.

Jamie Friedland - August 30, 2010


Even if that information were relevant to the personal opinions I wrote above, it is available on this very website – the same place you found it. Good detective work.

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