In a controversial emergency measure, BP will pay $360 million so Louisiana can build sand berms along six reaches of barrier islands in an effort to protect oil from invading the state’s delicate marshes and buffer against hurricane storm surge.

The plan was proposed by Plaquemines Parish and supported by the state of Louisiana. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers also agreed to permit the work, although Louisiana has not taken out the permits, as of June 3.

Significantly, BP doesn’t want liability for any unintended damage caused by the work.

But even after the Corps said it would let the project move forward, at first the national incident commander, U.S. Coast Guard Adm. Thad Allen, only agreed to allow about five miles of it to be charged to BP as an emergency response measure, leaving funding for the bulk of the work in doubt. Now, however, Allen has decided to classify it all as part of the emergency response, significantly expanding the funded area.

The barrier island build-up concept now includes dredging an estimated 60 to 90 million cu yds of sand from designated sites at the mouth of the Mississippi River and pumping or barging the borrow material to create a protective berm on the outside toe of roughly 40 miles of barrier islands.

In the official BP press release announcing the June 2 decision, Tony Hayward, BP’s chief executive officer, made it clear that BP is supporting what the “federal government and the state of Louisiana” agreed is “an effective response to the spill.”

He added that “BP will not manage or contract directly for the construction of the island sections, nor will the company assume any liability for unintended consequences of the project.”

Many are afraid the plan is a hasty, politically-motivated effort latched onto in a time of crisis and, without thoughtful execution, will result in a failed attempt.

The potential failure could waste valuable resources, give the dredging industry a black eye and actually cause further harm to the state’s delicate coast.

“This thing will begin to erode as soon as they begin to build it, so by the time they get to one end, the other end will be gone,” says Robert Young, professor of coastal geology at Western Carolina University, Cullowhee, NC.

“It will be very expensive. There is no evidence it will provide significant protection to wetlands, and it may actually enhance storm surge in some areas,” Young says.  “If you look at the state’s application and the permit decision, you wonder why the Corps ever issued the permit because the EPA and others question the efficacy, cost and impact.”

From the date the Corps issues the emergency authorization, the applicant (state) has 30 days to submit a final permit application, explains Pete Serio, chief of regulatory, New Orleans District, USACE.

“At that time, we will have a full-blown environmental assessment and determine whether EIS (environmental impact statement) is needed or not,” Serio says. The Corps included all agency concerns in the emergency permit it proffered to the state.

The permit also included two provisions and 33 specified conditions. “We are requiring extensive monitoring of the project as they’re building,” Serio says.

Between NOAA and the EPA alone, questions were raised about the proposal in regards to everything from altering storm surge to affecting navigation, and the impact of unsuitable borrow material on water and wildlife.

Young, who suggests that the Obama administration should assemble a scientific review panel to vet such proposals, is outraged that agencies were given so little time to comment. “There’s being fast, and then there’s being ridiculously fast,” he says. “In this particular case, I think we are being a bit rash.”

The state of Louisiana issued an emergency permit request to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers May 11 to move forward with a barrier island build up concept that many in the state have endorsed for years as an added protection against hurricane storm surge.

After various environmental and federal agencies weighed in on the possible detrimental effects of the concept, the state revised its plan and resubmitted its request for emergency permitting May 14. On May 27, USACE proferred the emergency permits (with provisions and conditions) to the state.

“The permit requires them to submit to us a construction schedule,” Serio says. “A lot of that will depend on availability of dredges and how many reaches will be done simultaneously.”

To date, the state has not returned the permits, says Amanda Jones, Corps spokesperson.

Once the state begins awarding contracts and construction gets underway, the project would take an estimated four to six months to complete.

Because identified, suitable sand sources are, in some instances, as much as seven miles from the placement site, dredging contractors will have to lay pipeline or barge to deliver the berm material, says Barry Holliday, executive director, Dredging Contractors of America. “Trying to pump this sacrificial berm will be really tough because it’s a narrow area with shallow water.”

Off the record, some dredging contractors have also expressed concern over the state’s plan to barge material from the borrow site and create stockpile areas, a proposal that may allow for the introduction of undesirable material.

Clearly, the state’s plan is still conceptual and doesn’t represent the final, approved, construction sequence, Holliday says.

“The concept changes almost daily, mostly as a result of people actually getting into the details of where the sand would come from, how it will be placed, and the priority of locations,” says Bill Hanson, vice president, Great Lakes Equipment Co., Oglesby, Illinois.  “Engineering is key, finding the right material and putting it in the right spot where it will most likely benefit.”

The U.S. industry has the capacity and know-how to perform the work, says Hanson, who has a history of working for the Corps on river dredging and coastal restorations. Even though the state has yet to issue requests for qualifications or proposals, Hanson has been meeting with state representatives to discuss “equipment availability and alternative ideas so they can put that in their thinking process and get closer to their decision,” he says.

Meanwhile, representatives from the Dutch dredging firm, Van Oord, Rotterdam, traveled to the Dutch embassy in Washington, D.C. to encourage a waiver of the Jones Act, confirmed Leffert Kuik, Van Oord’s director of operations for Africa and America.

A waiver would allow Dutch dredging contractors to bid on the project.

Some American dredging contractors have hinted that they fear the state will drag its feet on obtaining requisite approvals and devising the construction sequence and want the work delivered so quickly that it will over -tax the domestic industry’s capabilities.

The state has sought emergency permitting for berm construction on a total of 24 reaches totaling 128 miles, “contingent upon what happens within the 40 miles,” Serio says. “We issued the six reaches, and didn’t really deny the other 18. We will monitor the six and, from that, will make a determination on the other 18.”

Young and other coastal scientists will continue to push for more scientific review.

“There has been almost no engineering design that has gone into this thing, and no scientific review,” he says. “This thing came as a complete surprise to Louisiana coastal scientists and very quickly got switched from should we do it or not to the Louisiana, political angle of the Obama administration is dragging its feet and not doing anything. There was almost no dialogue about whether doing it or not makes sense.”