Gov. Bobby Jindal (R-La.) had a good idea to slow or stop the Gulf Coast oil spill from reaching shore. Build artificial barrier islands, he told the federal government. He wanted the Army Corps of Engineers to dredge the Gulf of Mexico and the Mississippi River to strengthen and connect the existing barrier islands. The $350 million plan, which Jindal demanded be paid for by BP Oil, would establish an 80–85 mile barrier, about 200 feet wide and six feet high. The barriers would also protect the marshlands, the federal wildlife preserves, and a fragile ecosystem.
When the federal government didn’t respond, he threatened to have Louisiana do the job itself, and had his attorney general notify the Corps of Engineers that under the 10th Amendment the state had a right to protect itself during an emergency. After two weeks of discussion and analysis by the Corps, President Obama ordered the first of six islands to be built. Coast Guard Commandant Thad Allen, the on-scene commander, said the first island would be a prototype; if it worked, five more would be built. Jindal wants 24 islands, but believes the first six are a good start.
The oil spill, more than 200,000 gallons a day and entering its sixth week, is now the size of Delaware and Maryland combined. Eleven workers are dead, 17 are injured, from the explosion of BP’s Deep Water Horizon, April 20. Several hundred thousand marine mammals, birds, fish, and reptiles have been killed by the spill. Even those oil-soaked birds and mammals that hundreds of volunteers have helped clean may be only days from death. About 34,000 Brown Pelicans, recently taken off the endangered species list, and seagulls continue to dive through the oil-soaked ocean to get to the food supply.
Thousands of migratory birds, during a two to three week rest in the Gulf Coast barrier islands on their flight north from South America, are dying. Sea Turtles, manatees, and dolphins still need to come up through the oil slick for air; eye irritations are the least of the problems they encounter. For about 5,000 dolphins, this is also their birthing season; mothers who survive may have oil on their teats; their calves may die from lack of nutrition or from ingesting the oil. The affected areas of the Gulf are also the spawning grounds for tuna, marlin, and swordfish. Even the fish, which may survive by staying below the spill, are affected by the oil. The coral reefs are being destroyed by the oil and what is needed to be done to break up that oil. More than 700,000 gallons of chemical dispersants, used to help break up the oil, add to the destruction of the balance of nature. Its toxicity may affect sea life for at least a decade.
The $2.5 billion fishing industry, a major part of the life of the Gulf, has been devastated. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has closed about 46,000 square miles of fishing fields, about one-fourth of all fishing waters in the Gulf. The lucrative shrimp, oyster, and clam industries are not only closed, but the effects will last for more than one season. Boat captains and their crews are idle. Tourism at the beginning of what is normally a lucrative summer season is almost non-existent.
Had the barrier islands been in place several years ago, the effects of the spill would have been significantly less. Erosion, combined with deep water oil drilling long before the Horizon explosion, had destroyed natural barrier islands and wetlands. A $14 billion proposal by the Corps of Engineers, supported by Louisiana, environmentalists and the oil industry to restore the area levees, wetlands, and barrier islands was rejected by President George W. Bush. Both he and Vice-President Dick Cheney, former oil company executives, were more concerned about protecting the oil industry than the people who would be affected by Big Oil. Besides, they had a war to wage in Iraq, and $14 billion was too much to spend on domestic protections.
Much of the $100 billion damage from Hurricane Katrina, a Category 3 storm, was not from the wind and rain but from the failure to provide adequate protection.
It is that same protection, those same barrier islands that were destroyed by the oil industry years ago, that would have significantly slowed or stopped the nation’s worst environmental disaster, one caused not by nature but the incompetence of mankind.
“Drill, Baby, Drill” was once an in-our-face slogan of certain politicians and the oil industry that feeds them. It is now but a reminder that when mankind destroys the environment, there will be tragic consequences.
Walter Brasch is author of the critically-acclaimed book, “Unacceptable”: The Federal Response to Hurricane Katrina.