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A dredging project favored by Gov. Bobby Jindal to block oil from the Louisiana coast was halted by federal authorities because it endangers long-term efforts to rebuild eroding barrier islands that provide natural hurricane protection for the state, an Interior Department official said Wednesday.
"You don't want to destroy the village to save the village," said Tom Strickland, Interior's assistant secretary for fish, wildlife and parks.
Jindal has been championing construction of enormous sand berms east and west of the mouth of the Mississippi River in hopes of capturing oil from the BP spill before it reaches delicate marshlands. The sand to build those berms is dredged from the Gulf floor.
The problem, Strickland said, is that the state has been dredging in a particularly sensitive area of the Chandeleur Islands, possibly hastening the deterioration of the islands. Jindal and his coastal chief both said the area in question complies with their original federal permit and they dismissed the suggestion the dredging will hurt long-term restoration efforts.
The Chandeleurs, in the Breton National Wildlife Refuge east of the Mississippi, are nesting grounds for species such as the brown pelican, and they are part of a diminishing natural hurricane barrier for Louisiana. Federal and state officials hope to someday fully restore the islands, which have been eroding for decades. Strickland said the berms are expected to last only about 90 days, maybe not even that long in an active hurricane season.
Federal officials permitted the project after the state agreed on May 14 to dredge sand from a less vulnerable area at the northern tip of the Chandeleurs, Strickland said. However, soon after dredging started on June 13, the state said it could not get a pipeline in place to draw the sand from that area, according to Strickland.
Strickland said the state sought -- and was granted -- permission to temporarily draw sand from the more vulnerable area a couple of miles to the south. Strickland said the state asked for five days to get the pipeline placed. A week was granted but after that, "We told them enough's enough," Strickland said, adding that dredging is still being allowed on a related project west of the Mississippi.
Jindal's coastal restoration chief, Garret Graves, had a different take on what happened. He stressed Wednesday that the area where the state has been dredging is within the original federal permit area at the north end of the Chandeleurs. The state agreed to move the dredges to another spot within that area at Interior's insistence earlier this month, Graves said, but want to continue dredging in the meantime.
Graves said the federal government has allowed the Chandeleurs to deteriorate so badly over the years that they no longer provide much in the way of storm protection for the state. He said the area being dredged is not a nesting area for birds and he scoffed at the idea that a few more days of dredging in the disputed area will endanger future restoration efforts. Graves and Jindal both said the sand taken from the area will be replaced.
Strickland said replacing the dredged sand is easier said than done. "When you're replacing sand that has been packed down with loose sand that's pumped in, you're not going to get the same kind of bonding of it. It's at best a more limited repairing of what's been taken out," he said.
"We have some of the best dredging experts in the nation that are working on this project," Graves responded. "I don't have any concern about their capabilty to backfill this area."
Jindal and Plaquemines Parish President Billy Nungesser have been vehemently critical of a lumbering cleanup effort by BP and the federal government. Both have said federal authorities took much too long to approve the berm project and require BP to cover the $360 million cost.
However, some scientists have questioned whether the projects are a good idea, noting, among other potential problems that a hurricane might wipe out the berms soon after they are built.
Strickland said federal authorities were willing to risk that possibility, agreeing with Jindal that the berms could be effective in keeping some oil out of wetlands.
"If it can get up quickly enough and we do have some good fortune with the weather it may well be able to be part of the solution here," Strickland said.
Associated Press Writer Brian Skoloff in New Orleans contributed to this story.