Feds Halt Some Louisiana Dredging, Saying It Puts Islands at Risk

U.S. officials and the state of Louisiana continue to battle over whether the state's attempt to build sand berms that will protect wetlands from oil could damage sensitive barrier islands. Yesterday the federal government ordered a temporary halt in the dredging program, declaring that "enough is enough."

"If it were to continue for another week, we might pass a tipping point" of harm, said Tom Strickland, assistant secretary for Fish, Wildlife and Parks.

Scientists raised several objections to the state's first proposal last month to build a long line of sand berms on 10 May. One key concern was that taking sand from in front of the Chandeleur Islands would make them more vulnerable to erosion. The state agreed to change its approach by taking sand from a site further away and then pumping it through pipes to build the berms.

Despite that agreement, on 13 June the state asked the federal goverment for permission to dredge sand from in front of the Chandeleur Islands. Apparently, the state has had trouble constructing the pipe. The Army Corps of Engineers agreed to let the state dredge from in front of islands for a week, citing the imminent threat to the wetlands. And yesterday the state asked for permission for another 5 to 10 days of dredging in the same location, promising that tit would eventually put sand back.

But Strickland says that replacing what was packed sand with loose sand wouldn't suffice. The "preservation of the barrier island" is at stake, he says.

Although Strickland said no final decision had been made about allowing more dredging in that location, right now the dredges are idling. "They shut down yesterday evening," he says.

Billy Nungesser, the president of Plaquemines Parish and a strong advocate of the berms, is reportedly furious. Governor Bobby Jindal is equally insistent that there should be no delays. "We absolutely want to continue dredging in the current spot for another 5 days until we can make a seamless transition to the next borrow site," he said in a statement released yesterday evening. "We absolutely cannot afford to lose another day."

Jindal says that almost 1 kilometer of berm had been built. That's about 14% of the project. Strickland says the berms are unlikely to last more than 90 days before they're eroded away.