BP ordered to pay for first portion of barrier island planJun 9th, 2010 | By Frank McCormack | Category: news
Mid-way through a June 2 press conference in Venice, Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal got word that the federal government would indeed require British Petroleum to pay for the initial six reaches of the state’s innovative, oil-blocking barrier island plan.
“We’ve just received word from the White House that they are going to require BP to fund the five remaining segments,” Jindal told reporters, while Plaquemines Parish President Billy Nungesser led the crowd in a round of applause.
“I grabbed the microphone and said, ‘Thank you, Mr. President,’” Nungesser recalled.
It was a major step forward for the project, which was first proposed about a month ago. Under the plan, dredged sand berms – six feet tall and several hundred feet wide – will follow the historical line of Louisiana’s battered barrier islands and block oil from the Gulf oil spill from reaching Louisiana’s fragile marshes. Under the full plan, berms would stretch from Chandeleur Island west to Timbalier Bay.
“We would have preferred that this came three weeks ago. We would have preferred that they approve our entire plan,” Jindal said. “But today is a step forward.”
Coast Guard Admiral Thad Allen, the National Incident Commander for the oil spill response, had announced May 27 that the federal government would grant permits for six portions of the 24-segment plan. At the time, though, Allen said that BP would be required to pay for only one segment, an island off Scofield Bay on the west bank of Plaquemines, with the state paying for the other five segments. Just a week later, federal officials decided to force BP to pay for all six.
The approved reaches will stretch about 40 miles, with four segments on the west bank of the Mississippi River and two on the northern reaches of the Chandeleur Island chain.
With Coast Guard approval and full BP funding for the first six segments, Jindal quickly turned attention to actually implementing the plan.
“Now I’m calling on BP and I’m calling on the federal government: Help us make sure BP is the responsible party,” Jindal said. “Thank you for approving our entire six segments, but now I’m calling on you. Don’t just let it be an approval on paper alone.”
In the days since BP was ordered to fund all six reaches, the oil giant has tapped Baton Rouge-based engineering firm The Shaw Group Inc. to manage the project. BP announced June 3 that the company had established a $360 million escrow account to pay for the project.
In that statement, the company stated, “Since the environmental implications of the projects are not fully understood, BP assumes no liability for unexpected or unintended consequences of these projects.”
Skeptics of the plan fear the islands could restrict tidal flow, disrupt sea life and even trap oil already in the marsh from retreating back into the Gulf. Proponents have argued the threat from oil intrusion far outweighs any negative impact the islands might have. Officials hope to see dredges pumping sand within days.
A hard fight for partial success
The June 2 go-ahead to begin the initial phases of the barrier island project came after weeks of debate between state and local officials, the federal government, BP and experts in the field.
Although he Army Corps of Engineers issued emergency permits for six portions of the project May 27, that approval placed the vast majority of the financial burden on the state. State officials pleaded with President Barack Obama during his May 28 visit to Grand Isle that the government instead require BP to pay for the whole plan.
“He promised that, within the next two or three days, we’d have a round table meeting to discuss the plan,” Nungesser said.
That meeting between federal officials, environmental experts and state leaders took place June 1 at the Port of New Orleans. State officials offered the first remarks.
“After that, it was all the panelists and interior secretaries ripping the plan apart,” Nungesser said. “Every reason [against the plan] you could believe.”
The negative words about the plan were so frustrating for Nungesser that he stormed out of the meeting. When Nungesser returned a few minutes, the group was taking a break, he said. Nungesser seized the opportunity to change the tone of the meeting.
“I stood up to the podium and said, ‘This is a dog and pony show. This is not what the President promised, and after this is over, I’m going to call and tell him so,’” Nungesser said.
Immediately after that, Allen said he would allow local leaders time for follow-up comments after the panel of experts finished their presentation. Nungesser said that, in the end, none of the panelists would say he or she was against the plan.
“Are you for or against it?” he said he repeatedly asked one of the secretaries.
“I’m OK with it,” Nungesser said the secretary finally responded.
“I’ll take that as a yes,” he replied.
At the close of the June 1 meeting, which ended at 4 p.m., Allen pledged to deliver within 24 hours an answer to whether BP would be required to pay for all six segments of the plan. Word of his decision came just a few minutes before 4 p.m. the next day.
Reflecting on the month-long fight to get the project underway, Nungesser said he understands the concern over possible environmental impacts, but he stressed that enacting the plan is crucial to saving the wetlands.
“A good plan violently executed right now is far better than a perfect plan executed next week,” Nungesser said, quoting General George S. Patton. “In this situation, that couldn’t be more appropriate.”