Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal’s plan to block BP Plc’s spilled oil with sand berms, approved after President Barack Obama met with officials, was declared a failure by the staff of a commission investigating the disaster.
State officials sought federal permits to build the berms on May 11, three weeks after BP’s Macondo oil well in the Gulf of Mexico ruptured, according to a commission staff working paper released today. The berms, described by the panel staff as “underwhelmingly effective, and overwhelmingly expensive,” will become a barrier island restoration project.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers initially rejected the project, estimated to cost $360 million to $424 million, saying berms would be ineffective during the emergency. Thad Allen, a retired Coast Guard admiral who led the government’s response to the spill, approved the berms after a May 28 meeting in Grand Isle, Louisiana, where Jindal “aggressively lobbied” Obama and federal officials for the project.
“The State of Louisiana championed this project, and the Corps and the National Incident Command decided to approve it, in the context of intense political pressure and public attention,” according to the report. “From a long-term coastal restoration perspective, the berms may indeed be a ‘significant step forward,’ as Governor Jindal has claimed, but they were not successful for oil-spill response.”
Jindal defended the project to build sand islands off the Louisiana coast as recently as Nov. 15 during an interview on NBC’s “Today Show.”
“The reality is, it worked,” Jindal said. “And the reality is, it prevented that oil from getting into the wetlands 15 to 20 miles away.”
Of almost 5 million barrels of oil spilled, about 1,000 barrels, a “minuscule amount,” was captured by the berms, according to the report. BP spent $220 million to build 10 miles (16 kilometers) of sand berm and has committed an additional $140 million to complete the project.
“Doing nothing was not an option for us as we fought to protect our coast,” Garret Graves, chairman of the Louisiana Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority, said today in a letter to the commission. “The berm concept was a pre-planned, pre-federally approved oil-spill response measure.”
BP’s spending on berms is about three times higher than all other response and removal activities in Louisiana.
“From the perspective of the commission staff, however, $220 million for a spill response measure that trapped not much more than 1,000 barrels of oil is not a compelling cost-benefit tradeoff,” the staff said in the report.
When asked to respond to Allen’s reversal on the plan, a White House official told commission staff that the spill response was dynamic, according to the report.
“This broad truism does not explain why the National Incident Command’s stance on the berms project changed dramatically in a matter of days,” the staff said in the report. “We do, however, believe the facts show that the president’s ‘direction’ to Admiral Allen at Grand Isle set off a chain of events that led to the National Incident Command’s approval of the full six-segment project -- six days after it had made a very different decision.”
At the time of the May 28 Grand Isle meeting, the administration’s response to the spill was under assault, according to the report. At the meeting, Obama asked Allen to review the berm project request and report back within a week.
Scientists and government officials at a June 1 meeting on the berm project offered “guarded support” for the plan.
“A Coast Guard officer present at the summit offered a similar assessment,” the staff said in the report. “According to that officer, the experts ‘all said it’s pretty crummy’ and offered no ‘glowing endorsements’ of berms as a spill response measure.”
On June 2, Allen announced that the project could go forward.
“I proposed to both BP and the State of Louisiana that they consider an agreement that would provide for the construction of a limited number of berms,” Allen said in a statement. “To be clear, the ultimate approval of this proposal was my decision.”
An April 20 explosion on the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig, leased by BP from Transocean Ltd., killed 11 workers, spewed crude for 87 days and shut a third of the Gulf of Mexico to fishing. The National Commission on the BP Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill is expected to release the findings of its investigation in January.