Desperate Measures for Oil Spill Draw More Criticism

With the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico already wrecking tourism and closing down much of the fishing, Louisiana and other states have been trying hard to protect their sensitive coastal wetlands.

The problem: many of their proposed actions don't pass scientific muster or pose dangerous side effects. The latest example is the attempt to fill tidal channels in Barataria Bay with rocks. Scientists dismissed the idea as foolhardy, predicting it would cause erosion of barrier islands. Last weekend, the Army Corps of Engineers agreed and denied the permit application, killing the project.

Scientists have also criticized a proposal to block off a channel in Dauphin Island, Alabama, for example, because it was so hastily conceived that its full effects were hard to predict.

The biggest and most controversial project, of course, is to build a massive sand berm along the coast:

The project would require dredging an estimated 68 million cubic meters of sand and cost at least $350 million—perhaps three times that figure. "I was stunned," says Joseph Kelley, a coastal geophysicist at the University of Maine, Orono. "This is a big proposal and not well thought out."

Despite concerns from scientists, the project went ahead. But late last month, the Department of Interior halted some of the dredging because it was threatening to damage barrier islands.

Desperate times lead to desperate action, and getting careful scientific scrutiny apparently doesn't rank high on the list of most politicians. "Local parish and state officials are pretty exasperated," says Robert Twilley, an oceanographer at Louisiana State University, Baton Rouge. "They're just throwing any ideas at this."