LIVINGSTON, Louisiana -- Dr. Ivor van Heerden, the former deputy director of Louisiana State University's Hurricane Center, was one of several experts to presciently predict the disastrous consequences -- including catastrophic levee failure -- if a major hurricane were to hit the New Orleans area. "Louisiana is a terminally ill patient requiring major surgery," van Heerden told the PBS program "Nova" in 2004.
In the course of encouraging transformative hurricane preparation, van Heerden additionally called for the restoration of Louisiana's coastal wetlands. Decades of erosion due to oil exploration have eroded the marshes that once functioned as New Orleans' natural buffer from approaching hurricanes. Such storms feed off of open water, vast expanses of which now lie ever closer to the city. As van Heerden and others foretold, this situation proved disastrous during Katrina.
After the hurricane, van Heerden chronicled his findings in "The Storm: What Went Wrong In Katrina and Why -- The Inside Story From One Louisiana Scientist" (Viking Adult, 2006; co-written with Mike Bryan.) The book earned wide praise as a telling indictment of the Army Corps of Engineers, which van Heerden castigated for building shoddy levees around New Orleans and for allowing the oil companies to ravage the wetlands by digging intrusive canals. At the same time, it was criticized for perceptions of a self-serving tone and a pedantic writing style. More significantly, van Heerden's book and his ensuing outspoken statements clearly annoyed his employer, LSU. In April 2009, he was fired.
Van Heerden maintains that the firing occurred because LSU feared that his candor would jeopardize future grant money. The university has declined to comment, and van Heerden has filed an injunction to reverse the decision. He's received ample support from many prominent academic colleagues, along with some negative depictions as a gadfly.
Van Heerden, who has a doctorate in marine science, is working for Polaris Applied Sciences, based in Kirkland, Washington. The company's mission is "Providing companies worldwide with scientific support to spill response."
Van Heerden serves as a SCAT (Shoreline Clean-Up Assistance Techniques) leader. "We become the eyes of the spill," he explained. "The team consists of myself as the marine scientist and tech leader; a representative of state government, such as the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality; and someone from the federal government, usually NOAA (the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration) but occasionally the Fish and Wildlife Service. Plus an archaeologist if historic sites are involved. We fly over from a few hundred feet up, and map any oil that we see. With Hurricane Alex, there is potential for more oil moving in, and we'll find out about that soon."
Van Heerden went on to recount that such aerial reconnaissance is followed by shoreline surveys from boats. At each day's end a report is logged in that includes a GPS track and numerous photos, "so that, both spatially and temporally, we have a precise record in our database. If shoreline cleanup is indicated, then a NOAA rep passes that on to the operations folks."
"This is a very standard response process in a spill," van Heerden said. One aspect of his role may be quite surprising, though. The official website of the Deepwater Horizon Unified Command -- the government/business compendium that runs the recovery -- lists Polaris as a "BP Contractor." Van Heerden states matter-of-factly: "I have to make a living, since I no longer work for LSU. This job utilizes my expertise, and I feel quite sure that it does not compromise my integrity in the least."
Many harsh critics of BP -- including Leonard Bahr, a former Louisiana State University marine sciences faculty member and coastal policy adviser -- vouch for van Heerden without reservation, praising him as "well-respected." But other observers disagree, especially those with more of a fringe perspective. Last month the blogspot New Orleans Ladder commented "now that it appears that Ivor van Heerden is into the Jury-Tainting Business with BP, I sincerely hope that our readership may [serve on his jury] in his own case against LSU."
Van Heerden's personal take on the spill may further exacerbate such opinions. "The general public is understandably very depressed about the spill," he said, "but it could be that by Christmas this will all be a bad dream. In my opinion it is not a doomsday scenario. There has not been all that much oil intrusion and the oil breaks down rapidly. So do the dispersants. I'm not a toxicologist, and I don't know what the effects of ... another storm, if we have one. But we see no evidence of oiled fish or fish kills or anything like that.
"As a recreational fisherman myself, I am really looking forward to when they lift the bans in some of those fishing areas. I think it will be a bumper season. I haven't seen any testing, but from my observations everything in the wetlands is alive and well."
Speaking on the condition of anonymity, one of van Heerden's colleagues shared this view: "The fishermen and the average citizens are genuinely hurting now because they can't work. But most of the fishing-ground closings are precautionary and temporary. Plus, the areas that are open aren't being fished, because most of those guys are working for BP. But the media gets a more dramatic story by making all this look as bad as possible, and that allows the politicians to keep glomming more money from BP."
While van Heerden seeks to allay fears about the extent of environmental damage, he bristles at the mention of Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal's berm construction project that is touted as a magic bullet for blocking oil. In lieu of a clear leader and a cogent plan, many Louisianans are pulling for the project's success with a combination of religious faith and patriotic fervor. In this climate, disagreement is tantamount to disloyalty. Even so, impartial scientists are dubious.
"Sand castles" is van Heerden's succinct description of the berms, along with this scientific explanation: "There's a concept known as the equilibrium profile which is based on wave energy, the slope of the beach, and the grain size of the sediment. The sediment involved here is very fine, so the berms will erode and shape themselves at a very low angle. I've looked at it from the air and they're having a huge problem stacking the sand."
Nevertheless Jindal is pushing the berm project with an intensity that borders on messianic zeal but -- on a more worldly level -- is at times disingenuous. Last month he took reporters to see an unrelated and pre-existing coastal restoration site that he represented both as part of the new berm project and evidence of its rapid progress. The two sites are entirely separate, situated many miles apart, and use completely different construction technology. But -- perhaps because the current zeitgeist favors the berm project so strongly -- no media coverage mentioned the discrepancy.
"Jindal didn't seek scientific info, and no copy of the final plan was ever forthcoming," van Heerden went on. "He claimed it was designed by 'Dutch engineers.' I contacted all the engineers whom I know in the Netherlands" (van Heerden hails from South Africa) "and so far none of them know of any Dutch engineer who supposedly was involved in this design. In my opinion this is totally about Jindal's desire to be elected president, and the unfortunate reality in Louisiana right now is that scientists with the expertise to make informed comments are a little afraid to do so ever since they saw what happened to me. My situation has had a huge chilling effect." In this vein, Leonard Bahr's latest web posting, "Silence of the Eco-Lambs" decries what he describes as the failure of the National Wildlife Federation, the Environmental Defense Fund and the National Audubon Society to speak up on the issue.
Last month, the Coast Guard suspended work on the berm when state contractors started dredging in an off-limits "littoral zone," thus risking serious environmental damage. But Jindal and Plaquemines Parish President Billy Nungesser denounced the federal demand to abide by an explicit agreement as just more capricious meddling by out of touch Washington bureaucrats. A respected environmentalist, Dr. John Lopez, coastal program director for the Lake Pontchartrain Basin Foundation -- which has supported the berm project in general -- sided with the temporary suspension until the permit's conditions were obeyed. "What good does it do to protect the [Chandeleur] islands from oil," Lopez said, "if you destroy them while trying to protect them?"
Nungesser's response was apoplectic. "Prove it!' he shouted, ripping up a letter from Lopez. "Prove it! Prove it! ... It's cheap talk to get his name in the paper! ... Boycott this organization, because they've done nothing but throw wrenches in it!" Nungesser went on to call for Lopez's resignation.
Much of Nungesser's angst over bureaucratic dithering is eminently valid, however. All observers and experts concur that skimmer boats provide one of the best and fastest forms of oil clean-up. But there have been puzzling delays in bringing enough such boats to the scene. A huge skimmer ship appropriately called A Whale, some 10 stories high, recently arrived from Taiwan. Its skimming capacity is 250 greater than most boats currently in use. The vessel is undergoing a weekend test.
"I completely agree," said van Heerden, "that the skimmers are effective. My concern is with these other asinine ideas. I don't want to see $350 million wasted on the berms. Down the road that could hurt Louisiana when we ask Congress to fund legitimate projects."
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