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King of the Hill

**Wednesday, June 16, 2010
Written by Jeremy Alford

With a sand berm project that's been dubbed the Great Wall of Louisiana,' Gov. Bobby Jindal is risking his political brand and the state that gave it to him.**

He might be opposed to gaming, but Gov. Bobby Jindal is showing his cards on the developing sand berm project that's under way. It proves he's willing to take on high stakes, but it doesn't mean he'll end up a winner...
**Wednesday, June 16, 2010
Written by Jeremy Alford

With a sand berm project that's been dubbed the Great Wall of Louisiana,' Gov. Bobby Jindal is risking his political brand and the state that gave it to him.**

He might be opposed to gaming, but Gov. Bobby Jindal is showing his cards on the developing sand berm project that's under way. It proves he's willing to take on high stakes, but it doesn't mean he'll end up a winner.

To the contrary, there's a growing voice of opposition to the plan, which calls for massive rows of sand to be constructed along Louisiana's historic barrier island line. Although it will allow for passes and won't be continuously connected, the 40-mile berm line is meant to trap the Deepwater Horizon's crude that is being pushed in by the tide.

It took a lot of jockeying to get the project going, but on June 1, Thad Allen, the Coast Guard admiral overseeing the Gulf oil crisis, held an emergency, closed-door meeting to gather information about the permit application from state and federal response agencies. It was attended by the governor and several parish presidents. Facing such a crowd, it's not surprising that Allen eventually ordered BP to foot the entire bill.

Sources involved with the briefing recall Jindal and some parish officials being "agitated" when presented with concerns about the project -  including data from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers - but it did little to visibly sway the governor, who informed the group he just needed an up or down vote because the state was facing a very real emergency. Academic theories, he said, weren't needed.

But the science was there for review. Public records released by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers show that Col. Al Lee, head of the Corps' New Orleans Office, made a presentation that day. He offered up Corps recommendations, like the project is "a lot of effort over a relatively long construction period for a limited benefit." The Corps' comments also pointed to a potential impact on habitats, altered tidal dynamics, saltwater intrusion and even oil penetration.
 
The next day, on June 2, the U.S. Geological Survey released a similar study, drafted by four geologists, that found it may be more difficult to build lasting barriers of sand than the state thinks. It also underscored the obvious, that storm waves carrying oil could likely overtop the berms.
 
But Lee's report seems to best capture why Jindal may have put Louisiana in this position. Consider the following from his presentation: "Do the potential benefits outweigh the potential detriments? Yes, in certain reaches. The potential benefit of preventing oil from entering the coastal marshes outweighs the potential detriment of allowing oil to enter the coastal marshes through no action."

Windell Curole, president of the Louisiana Association of Levee Boards and general manger of the South Lafourche Levee District, says he has had some success with smaller berm projects in his area, but doesn't know what to expect from Jindal's plan yet. But to be sure, he's in favor of the initiative. "It's better than nothing, and it's not better than nothing," he says. "Look, nobody wants to sit on their hands. You have to search for every possible idea."

While lawmakers have been inquisitive about the berm program, few if any have showed any interest in the scientific concerns. When asked about them last week, Rep. Jerry "Truck" Gisclair, D-Larose, almost growled. "I have no concerns," Gisclair says, his voice increasing in volume and defiance. "I want to see as many berms as possible. We can always blow the sand away. There's just no sense of urgency on this oil spill." Grand Isle, among other coastal hamlets, is in Gisclair's legislative district.

Other lawmakers are just trying to keep up with the speed of the process. "I don't know if we need the berms or don't need the berms," says Rep. Neil Abramson, D-New Orleans.

Garret Graves, chairman of the Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority and Jindal's top coastal adviser, says the berms will be 6 feet high and are based on the designs of a Dutch water resources firm. It will take three to four months to complete, he says, even though other estimates have put it at basically twice that.

But dirt has already been turned on the effort that he says will eventually protect 3,000 miles of coastline. "You will see some progress in the next several days," Graves told the Legislature during a briefing from the House floor last week.

As for effectiveness, Graves refers to a large map that shows oil reaching marshlands that were once protected by Louisiana's barrier islands - the same line the berm plan will follow. "If we get the berms there, we'll stop the oil well offshore," he says.

The construction stage represents another link in the plan that worries some observers. The state is scrambling to find enough dredges right now, and there's been an effort under way to get federal agencies to move privately owned dredges off ongoing projects to relocate them to the Gulf area. "This is going to be a very complex situation," says Scott Kirkpatrick, president of the Coastal Builders Coalition.
  
Interim Jefferson Parish President Steve Theriot says resources and equipment are already becoming scarce - and the process is just in its infant stage. There could come a time when parishes are fighting for resources the state needs for its berm lines, but there is an effort to maintain a comprehensive plan that would in theory squash such acrimony.

Nonetheless, when the oil reaches the coastlines of the other Gulf states in the near future, he says, the potential problem will only intensify. "It's going to be a fight or a jockeying for assets," Theriot says.

Jindal's future could be permanently tethered to the "Great Wall of Louisiana,"  the direct result of shaking down BP like a pro. BP is shelling out $360 million - about $200 million less than what the U.S. Interior Department estimated the project will cost. Louisiana gets portions of its coastal restoration and protection blueprint funded privately in the name of pollution. (In fact, BP has already wired the first $60 million installment to the state.)

Yet even though it's private money, there's still a risk for Jindal: Now that the project is moving from blueprint to reality, he owns it. And if it fails, he fails.

Jeremy Alford can be reached at [email protected]