NEW ORLEANS, La. -- Louisiana officials reached a major milestone midweek when the federal government approved construction of six sand berms to keep BP's oil spill from reaching precious coastal marshes.
For weeks, an increasingly anxious Gov. Bobby Jindal and Plaquemines Parish President Billy Nungesser pushed to start building the berms while the federal government studied the plan.
On Wednesday, Jindal thanked President Barack Obama, albeit begrudgingly.
"We would have preferred it came through weeks ago," Jindal said. "We would have preferred they approved the whole plan [approximately 30 berms]. But at least it is a step forward."
Meanwhile, the gusher continued unabated in the waters of the Gulf of Mexico, and oil has now reached the barrier islands off of Alabama's Mobile Bay and may soon stain the beaches of Florida's Panhandle.
A bit of possible progress was achieved Thursday with BP's announcement that it had successfully severed a jagged, leaking pipe and is trying to cover the spill with another containment dome. This proposed solution would not cap the leak, per se, but in theory would safely send most of the flow to tanker ships stationed on the surface. Some unspecified, lesser amount of oil would continue to escape.
For the time being, though, the spill has increased in volume because the cutting completed thus far has made the hole bigger.
A swirl of political developments accompanied the gushing crude this week.
On Tuesday, in New Orleans, a frustrated Nungesser walked out of a National Incident Command Barrier Island Berm Meeting with Coast Guard Adm. Thad Allen. Nungesser assumed that the meeting would be the last step in the issuance of permits to begin work on the berms. He complained of a gathering that he felt "should help Louisiana, instead of tearing the plan apart."
We "were talking about things in there that have absolutely nothing to do with the permit," Nungesser said. "I walked out . . . . because a lady was talking about how well the boom is working. She obviously is not from south Louisiana, she obviously has not been out there, she obviously has not been in the marsh holding the dead pelicans."
Govenor Jindal concurred. "The time for studies and discussion is over," he said, adding that the meeting "will only have been productive if we get approval for our plan. This plan is not a multiple-choice test. It's a pass-fail. . . ."
On Wednesday, Jindal announced that the White House had approved construction of the six berms. Many people in Louisiana are convinced that these berms made from dredged sand will provide at least temporary protection from further oil intrusion. The spill seems likely to continue until the drilling of a relief well is finished in August, and the thought of doing nothing until then is collectively considered abhorrent.
But some scientific observers doubt that the massive project will really work.
Leonard Bahr -- a former Louisiana State University marine sciences faculty member and coastal policy adviser -- has recently posted blogs with the headlines
: "Science is losing the coastal land wars 'game' amid calls to 'dredge, baby, dredge!,'" and "Science be damned: Bobby, Buddy and Billy draw a states' rights line in the sand!"
"Buddy" is Louisiana's attorney general, Buddy Caldwell, who recently told the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers that Louisiana has the right to dredge sand for the berms without the corps' approval.
In March, Jindal directed Caldwell to consider suing the federal government over health care; last year, Jindal refused to accept federal stimulus money for Louisiana.
Jindal, a Republican Party darling, is generally considered to have serious presidential ambitions. Even his harshest critics concede that Jindal's passionate, hands-on response to the crisis will surely advance that cause. But there are concurrent charges of grandstanding, in terms of Jindal pushing the berm plan without a firm scientific basis, to the great benefit of the dredging industry. "My sense," Bahr wrote, "is that this concept began life as a sketch on a cocktail napkin and never achieved detailed engineering design." Even so, many admirers of President Obama have taken note of Jindal's persistence and wish that the president would show a comparable level of emotion. Obama has also been widely criticized for the brevity of his trip to Louisiana last Friday. Obama will visit again today.
Response to the spill will be a major issue in Louisiana's senatorial race this fall. The incumbent Republican, David Vitter, faces a Democratic challenge from U.S. Congressman Charlie Melancon. Melancon is blasting what he characterizes as Vitter's cozy relationship with the oil industry. Thus far, Melancon has not mentioned Vitter's notoriously cozy relationship with the "D.C. Madame," as revealed in 2007. At some point, however, this elephant in the room is bound to materialize.
But Melancon has not joined in the clamor to simply stop all drilling in the gulf. Many of his constituents have lost their seafood-industry jobs due to the spill, and shutting down the rigs would put many more out of work. In fact, a significant number of people in Melancon's district combine long stretches of offshore-oil work with commercial fishing during their time off at home.
Nothing illustrates this symbiosis -- which baffles many outside observers -- more clearly than the annual Shrimp and Petroleum Festival. The festival, its website proclaims, "emphasizes the unique way in which these two seemingly different industries work hand in hand culturally and environmentally in this area of the 'Cajun Coast.' " At this point, the festival will be held as scheduled, Sept. 2-6, in the oilfield town of Morgan City, Louisiana.
And despite a spill-induced shortage of the star attraction, the New Orleans Oyster Festival
will celebrate these increasingly precious bivalves on Saturday and Sunday. Performers of note will include the Treme Brass Band, and the R&B singer Irma Thomas. The French Quarter festivities will also include oyster-shucking and oyster-eating contests.
Meanwhile, food itself -- quite apart from the seafood industry -- has emerged as a contentious topic in the ongoing oil crisis. Several clean-up workers have complained of severe headaches, nausea and breathing problems, and some have been hospitalized. The cause is thought -- although not proven -- to be toxic fumes from the spilled crude oil and/or the controversial dispersant, Corexit.
Compounding his already massive public relations problems, BP's Tony Hayward conjectured that such symptoms were due to food poisoning.
"I couldn't believe it," said Clint Guidry, acting president of the Louisiana Shrimp Association.
"First he makes our boys sick, and then he insults good Cajun cooking."