Don't Just 'Do Something'

By Begley, Sharon | Newsweek, June 21, 2010 | Go to article overview

Don't Just 'Do Something'


Begley, Sharon, Newsweek


Byline: Sharon Begley

We must put science first in the gulf.

Scientists are such spoilsports, always insisting on gathering data on the likely effects of a strategy before implementing it. Politicians are more inclined to just go for it, especially when they're desperate. Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal is desperate: millions of gallons of BP's crude are launching an amphibious assault on his beaches and wetlands. So let's do the math: desperation + a pol's "do something" mentality = a loony decision to build 14-foot sand berms to protect the state's coastline--a decision that bodes ill for the many others the state will face as BP's oil gushes at least until August.

Before this, Jindal was known to scientists as the governor who in 2008 signed a law allowing the state's public schools to teach creationism (excuse me! "intelligent design") in their classrooms. The difficulty he has distinguishing science from faith reared its ugly head again when he cast about for a way to hold back BP's oil. Emissaries from Jindal's office have made regular pilgrimages to the Netherlands to consult with engineers about protecting the state's coasts from the next Katrina. Van Oord, a marine engineering and dredging company that is constructing the artificial Palm Islands for Dubai, proposed building what amounts to artificial sandbars. "If you ask a Dutch company that builds artificial islands in Dubai how to protect marshlands and barrier islands," says coastal geologist Rob Young of Western Carolina University, "of course they'll say, 'Let's make an offshore island!--and shall we put a palm tree on it for you?'

The sandbars would stand in front of barrier islands in seven to eight feet of water and rise another six feet. The hope is that they would trap incoming oil before it despoils the islands. Oil caught in the sandbars would be collected by scooping up the sand, which is why coastal geophysicist Joe Kelley of the University of Maine calls them "sacrificial berms." The sandbars should also channel oil toward tidal inlets, where booms and skimmers could collect it before it infiltrates wetlands, which serve as vital nurseries for fish and birds.

Nothing like this has ever been tried, and the potential problems are legion. For starters, the 45 miles of berms the Army Corps of Engineers has OK'd will take six months to build, and "is going to start to erode and disappear immediately," says Young. …

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