Councilman questions spending on 'poster child' of the BP oil spill

Published: Apr. 3, 2015 at 2:59 AM CDT|Updated: Apr. 3, 2015 at 11:40 AM CDT
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PLAQUEMINES PARISH, LA (WVUE) - GPS technology commonly used by boats fails to keep pace with Louisiana land loss.

"It shows we're sitting on the island," said boat owner Bob Beck as he approached Cat Island in Plaquemines Parish this week.

In fact, the boat sat 300 feet off the island, which measured about 4 acres on April 20, 2010 when BP's Macondo Well blew out in the Gulf of Mexico.

Once home to hundreds of brown pelicans and other nesting birds, the island was heavily oiled in the spring and summer of that year. Today, it is a lifeless, gray sliver of sand and dead mangrove trees.

"These islands are the only places where the birds can breed without predation," said Doug Meffert, Executive Director of Audubon Louisiana. "We could have population crashes."

The parish cobbled together several million dollars from a variety of sources to rebuild Cat Island. Over the last few years, it has spent about half a million dollars on two rounds of design and engineering. The first involved a nearby island that the parish chose not to rebuild because of the threat a rebuilding project would pose to nearby oyster leases.

Next week, the parish council will consider a plan to spend another roughly half-million dollars on more engineering work by tapping into $1.2 million in coastal funds the state dedicated to the project.

"The last thing I want to see is a set of plans on the shelf," said Council President Benny Rousselle, who questions the additional expense.

Rousselle concedes that the island is now so shredded that the original design from a few years ago will not necessarily work. However, he plans to meet Monday with officials from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to hear more explanation for the latest round of spending.

The parish plans to surround the island with large geo-textile tubes, filling them with sand and armoring them with rock. Then, it would fill the interior with more sand barged in from the Mississippi River to reconstruct the island.

It hopes to realize savings by partnering with the Corps on a demonstration project involving the beneficial use of dredged material from the river. The Corps will provide the material while the parish foots the cost of transporting the sand.

"My questions were do we have the money to build the project," Rousselle said.

Although he insists he supports the project, Rousselle points out the deal with the state would require Plaquemines Parish secure all the funding for the project in by June 15.

"People might be trying to brand me as trying to kill the project," Rousselle said. "But foremost for me, I came to this office to be fiscally responsible.

The parish is relying on a hodgepodge of funding sources: the $1.2 million in coastal funds (CIAP) from the state; $1 million from Shell Oil Company; $500,000 from the Barataria-Terrebonne National Estuary Program; $250,000 from the American Bird Conservancy; and $2.4 million in Restore Act fines levied against BP for the spill.

Parish officials anticipate receiving the Restore check in July, a month after the state deadline.

"Protecting what we can and restoring what we can with available sediment nearby is something that we need to start doing now," Audubon's Meffert said.

Cat Island was losing a fight with the sea long before BP, succumbing to many of the same forces eroding Louisiana's coast.

The spill proved the final insult.

"Every little stresser that comes in and adds to that puts us in a hard situation to restore this area," said Natalie Peyronnin, Director of Science Policy for the Environmental Defense Fund's delta restoration program.

The tiny island - miles from any large land mass - serves no hurricane protection function and is subsiding rapidly. Coastal scientists warn that the more it withers away, the tougher it is to bring back.

"Cat Island is a situation where restoration's not going to happen there," Peyronnin said. "It's going to be lost and it's just not possible to restore."

Rousselle points out the state funding came with the caveat that the parish cover any cost if the project runs over budget.

"Say we got to the point where we we're bidding the project and we thought we had the money and it came in at a million dollars over cost, then our exposure is where do we get that million.?" he said.

The parish would also have the option of building a smaller footprint than the 15 acres it now plans.

"I want want to see Cat Island get built in some form or shape," Rousselle said.

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