Restoration planned for rare sandy beach in Louisiana

Forrest Travirca, a Wisner field inspector, holds a clump of tar that washed ashore last week
Forrest Travirca, a Wisner field inspector, holds a clump of tar that washed ashore last week

Fourchon Beach, La. -- Some scientists believe oil still staining Louisiana's coast has largely degraded to a relatively harmless state.

Forrest Travirca, a field inspector for the Wisner Foundation, begs to differ.

"Still has the consistency, still has the feel and it still has the smell," said Travica, holding up a coffee cup-sized tar ball that washed ashore near Port Fourchon last week.

Most of the port sits on Wisner property, which also includes nine miles of sandy beach.

As oil piled onto the beach in 2010, it also funneled through breeches and into marsh.  BP installed five-foot high sheet piles to close off those routes, which now sit mostly buried under sand.

Although the Gulf pushed sand up against the piles, building new beach, it caused problems elsewhere.

"Areas that used to wash in and out of the marsh have been closed off, causing the water to find alternate routes," said Cathy Norman, Secretary-Treasurer of the Wisner Foundation.

With the normal water flow altered, Norman said the Gulf has chewed away at the beach in places where there had not been erosion before.  Norman and Travirca worry that, once the pilings are pulled up, oil trapped below will gush to the surface.

"The amount of oil that arrived on this beach and the amount of oil that stayed in the sub tidal zones was substantial," Travirca said.

The stakes go beyond damage to the beach.

"We really believe that this is one of the most crucial portions of the state of Louisiana," said Steve Green, a Wisner heir.

In 1914, the estate of Edward Wisner was donated to the city as a charitable trust, providing a source of income for local organizations.  Even today, the beach and marsh on Wisner property provide protection for Port Fourchon, which generates roughly 20 percent of the nation's oil supply.

"We had memories of being able to run from the back of the beach to the water and run out of breath," Green said.

The Gulf claims about 50 feet of shoreline annually.

Help is on the way.

Port Fourchon plans to install a mile-and-a-half "burrito," a geo dune like the ones built into the Grand Isle sand dune that serves as a levee.  The geo dune, filled with sand, takes the shape of a long tube topped with sand.  The process is explained in this article from Earth magazine.

The Governor's Office of Coastal Activities has announced it will begin work later this year on a $70 million project to nourish and build nearly five miles of dunes.

In the long term, a quarter-of-a-billion dollar effort aims to restore much of the shoreline of the Caminada Headlands from Port Fourchon to just west of Grand Isle.

The state has secured money for the two smaller projects, but the larger project remains unfunded.

"We're hoping that it might rise to the top and be funded with some of the BP funds," Norman said.