Corps of Engineers’ delays are harmful to Louisiana’s coast: An editorial

Published: Wednesday, July 06, 2011, 7:56 AM

Time may be the most implacable enemy Louisiana faces in its struggle to save its eroding coastline, and that’s why the state cannot afford delays in critical restoration projects, like those aimed at the Caminada shoreline and Shell Island.

KARI DEQUINE / THE TIMES-PICAYUNE Through a collaboration of non-profits and the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries, 800 “Gulf Saver Bags” were deployed at Pass a Loutre to prevent erosion and mitigate oil damage.
Those projects, which were approved by Congress in 2007, could serve as a case study in how procrastination is killing Louisiana’s coast.

Plans call for restoring a sand dune along the Caminada shoreline south of Port Fourchon and piping in sand to rebuild Shell Island, a mostly vanished barrier island. Doing so would help suppress storm surge, protecting the Port Fourchon offshore oil service industry and interior wetlands.

Garret Graves, chairman of the state Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority, said that the work should have been done “in months.” Instead, four years have elapsed, and now the price has gone up beyond what Congress authorized, leaving the possibility that only the sand dune will be built.

“This is the corps’ process, the corps’ attorneys, being incapable of responding to this urgent coastal crisis we have in Louisiana,” Mr. Graves said.

His frustration is understandable — the corps does need to develop a greater sense of urgency. Delays inevitably mean cost increases, and the state is continuing to lose coastal wetlands in the interim.

Congress authorized the Caminada and Shell Island projects as part of the $1.9 billion Louisiana coastal restoration program, but specified that the cost had to stay below $346 million.

The corps is recommending that Congress provide the funds for all the work, according to Fay Lachney, senior plan formulator with the corps. That’s encouraging. But the agency wants to move forward on the shoreline project while Congress considers whether to provide additional money for Shell Island.

That needs to happen — and quickly. Unfortunately, the corps is citing other obstacles to getting started, including pollution caused by the BP oil spill.

The corps says that it cannot acquire contaminated property. The Edward Wisner Donation Trust, which owns much of the land needed for the sand dune project, has been struggling to get BP to clean up oil since weeks after the Deepwater Horizon explosion.

“We’ve been told now that the removal is stagnant and that the Unified Command seems content to leave oil on the beach, against our will,” said Joe Waltzer, an attorney representing the trust.

BP shouldn’t be allowed to get away with leaving beaches contaminated — especially if doing so in any way jeopardizes vital coastal restoration work. Mr. Graves complained to Congress last week about the pace of cleanup efforts and the potential harm that it presents to a number of restoration projects.

Oil is in the Gulf and will likely wash up for years to come, Mr. Graves pointed out. “To say we can’t do restoration anywhere where there’s oil would mean we wouldn’t build restoration projects for years in coastal Louisiana — and that’s not an option.”

He’s right, and state and federal officials need to keep the pressure on BP to make it right.

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