A proposal to build “sand booms” to help keep the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico from fouling Louisiana wetlands may help jump-start long-dreamed-of schemes to re-nourish Louisiana’s barrier islands.

Photo courtesy of Baggerwereld.com
Van Oord’s 9-year-old hopper dredge Rotterdam has a 21,500 cubic meter capacity and can dredge in waters as deep as 60 m, and up to 120 m, with extensions. Van Oord has 100 vessels worldwide and claims its fleet is three times the size of the entire U.S. dredging fleet.

But it is also stirring up enmity between U.S. dredge operators and their counterparts in The Netherlands.

Two Dutch organizations, Deltares, an independent research institute for water, soil and subsurface issues based in Delft, and Van Oord, a Rotterdam-based dredging company, irritated U.S. dredge operators when they presented their proposal two weeks ago to Plaquemines Parish and state officials.

The Dutch organizations offered to move on old, unfunded plans to re-nourish the partially submerged Chandeleur Islands and islands in Barataria and Timbalier bays that frame the mouth of the Mississippi River to shield delta wetlands behind them.

Van Oord offered to come in with its own high production equipment and do the job in a hurry. It said the work would protect fragile wetlands from the oil spill and improve storm surge protection for the coast as well.

The Dutch stepped on some toes with their initiative.

“This is not a Dutch proposal, but something the Corps of Engineers, the dredging industry and the State of Louisiana have been looking at for a long time as part of the Louisiana Coastal restoration program,” says Barry Holliday, executive director with the Dredging Contractors of America, Washington, D.C.

“The reality is we have the equipment suitable to do this kind of work, so it’s just a matter of funding to get the job done.

“U.S. contractors should do it,” Holliday says. “Even to have the Dutch to come here to make the proposal is insulting as well. It is just one more opportunity they have to undermine U.S. law.”

American “governors, consultants, engineering firms and U.S. officials” invited Van Oord to make a proposal, says Leffert Kuik, the Rotterdam company’s director for operations in Africa and America.

“We know people from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers because, outside of America, we have been working under the supervision of the U.S. Army Corps, for instance in Ecuador,” Kuik says. “They visit engineering firms in Holland and outside of Holland.”

Edwin Welles, an American spokesman for Deltares, says Deltares is a research institute studying deltas that believes the barrier island build-up is a good idea. It is offering scientific support, not design or dredging services.

“We wouldn’t do the dredging or even come up with the engineering design,” Welles says. “We would perform hydraulic and morphologic modeling to support it. We are a science, think-tank organization that likes to solve problems.”

Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal said on May 17 that the state’s Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority asked the Army Corps of Engineers for an emergency permit in mid May to move forward with the plan. The Corps says it is expediting the permitting process, although it is unclear how the work would be funded and who would perform it; but American contractors have been quick to cry foul about including the Dutch in considerations.

“Decision is already made by the law,” says Holliday. “If work is done in this country, it is by U.S. equipment, U.S.-owned and U.S.-built equipment.”

Holliday is referring to the Merchant Marine Act of 1920�more commonly known as the Jones Act. In part, the act protects the U.S. shipping industry by restrictive “cabotage” provisions requiring that when goods or passengers are transported by ship between U.S. ports, the ship must be built in the U.S., flagged as a U.S. vessel, owned and operated by U.S. citizens and with at least three-quarters of its crew being U.S. citizens, too.

Kuik is aware that Van Oord will not be allowed to bid on the project unless the Jones Act is waived. “We have been talking to lawyers in America for the last 25 years,” he says. “People talk about a free market, but in America, it’s not so free for us.”

Van Oord is a worldwide marine contractor with a fleet of more than 100 vessels that perform all sorts of activities in both shallow and deep draft, Kuik says.

“Our fleet with Van Oord is three times bigger than the entire fleet of all American contractors together, and we can mobilize quickly for the need in Louisiana. I say that not to disparage our American counterparts, but because it’s true.

“We have a couple of American colleagues we see when we go around the world,” Kuik adds. “Sometimes we work together, and sometimes we are in competition. In America, we are ready to work with them as friends. We like to cooperate and not to fight.”

The Jones Act has been waivered in the past under other special circumstances, says Lt. General Robert Van Antwerp, USACE chief of engineers and commander. The U.S. Department of Transportation’s Maritime Administration grants the waivers.

MARAD issued a waiver for a two-week period in 2005 after Hurricane Katrina damaged ports and ships in the Gulf of Mexico, so foreign vessels could transport natural gas and oil between U.S. ports, says Eugene Pawlick, a Corps spokesman at headquarters in Washington, D.C.

Agricultural interests, which have historically opposed the Jones Act because they say it raises the cost of shipping and makes them less competitive with foreign sources, also applied for a waiver after Hurricane Katrina, Pawlick says.

Having the barriers in place prior to hurricane season, which begins June 1, would be a welcome, added protection against storm surge, Van Antwerp says.