Changing Course in the Gulf: Bad Lessons in Money and Politics Pt. 2 – Bobby Jindal, Sand Berms and the Shaw Group

Everybody in? The water, well, the water's...something.

Over the past five months, Gulf Coast residents have been treated to a number of decisions with direct impact on their lives. They weren’t asked to give input at the time these decisions were made. They weren’t asked how they thought it might affect their future. The decisions occurred above their heads and most times, without their knowledge, but they are the ones now paying the price. This post is the second of three parts having to do with these decisions. Part one addressed British Petroleum’s use of the dispersant, Corexit while two and three will be concerned with Bobby Jindal’s sand berms and the federal government’s response, including the amount of control ceded to British Petroleum. All three will address the issue of the courage necessary to change course in the Gulf, the importance of doing so and who will be affected. All three decisions to be looked at had to do with money and politics, and changing course now will affect the back accounts and political standing of the people in charge, but change must happen.

What is going on in the Gulf of Mexico is not working.

“We need the Federal Government to get in this war to win it.” – Bobby Jindal

And thus began the Louisiana governors charade that is the sand berm project. In this simple sentence Jindal set himself up as the man at odds with an inept response, as the individual who was being pro-active, the man of common sense doing something tangible while everyone dawdled. When the Deepwater Horizon exploded and it became readily apparent oil was gushing into the Gulf, the ideas of how to mitigate the damage began in earnest. Some were tried and true, skimmers and boom with all their benefits and faults, and some were not, like the use of dispersants on a level nobody had ever before attempted. Bobby Jindal then injected into the public dialogue his idea: the construction of a hundred miles of sand berms.

This idea seemed simple enough, build walls of sand off the coast which will catch the oil and keep it from the coast, but then as the details, and the environmental impact of the project were looked at, it gave most everybody pause, everybody but Jindal and the dredging companies. Scientists said berms would be too fragile, the overall environmental impact would be too harmful, removing sand from the very coast that already needed to be rebuilt was a bad idea and besides, the contractors predicted a nine month time frame to complete construction. It would simply take too long, but Jindal pounced; he had an issue he could work. When the Army Corps of Engineers, the Obama administration and the Coast Guard hesitated to give Jindal the permits required, the Louisiana governor who never met a regulation he liked and had long been an advocate of small government, skipped the science and seized the microphone, speaking forcefully to any reporter who would listen, “We don’t have time for red tape and bureaucracy,” Jindal said, “We’re literally in a war to save our coast.”

Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority Chairman Garret Graves, a Jindal appointee, angrily defended the berm project against environmentalists, scientists and federal officials, saying the state plan carefully balanced the negatives raised with the ever-growing threat of oil reaching the coast and, he pointed out, none of the federal agencies that raised objections required BP to prepare detailed environmental assessments for dealing with a worst case oil spill. He neglected to mention the part of the state’s plan dealing with a worst case scenario was simply blank, labeled, “to be developed,” and that this lack of a federal plan was signed off on by Louisiana state officials.

These details were not politically convenient.

The sand berms were, however, and so was all the shouting against government red tape; they kept the focus off Jindal’s lack of a response plan. The sand berms put Jindal on the offensive.

It was dramatic stuff.

And the feds relented. An emergency proclamation was declared, giving Jindal the right to begin construction, funded by $350 million dollars of BP’s money.

And so in June, The Shaw group began construction of Bobby Jindal’s sand berms.

And by early July we were treated to such narratives as this:

Governor Bobby Jindal gives a crisp salute to the Louisiana National Guard soldiers standing outside the Governor’s Mansion as he climbs aboard a Blackhawk helicopter for another trip to the Gulf of Mexico. Today’s mission: a tour of the E-4 sand berm under construction in the Chandeleur Islands, one of six artificial barriers authorized by the Army Corps of Engineers and a linchpin in the governor’s strategy for containing the oil from the ruptured Macondo well, but first, the governor makes a stop at Lakefront Airport to pick up the national news media — camera crews from ABC, NBC, CBS, Fox and CNN and a reporter for The Washington Post — who quickly climb aboard for a noisy 30-minute ride to a narrow strip of sand where a 24-hour dredging operation is under way.

And with every trip to the berms, those narrow strips of sand have increasingly come to symbolize his proactive, common sense, buck the feds response to the oil spill. With each mention by the press, and with every shot he takes at scientists who questioned his plan, Bobby Jindal’s image has become further linked to this project until we get to where we are today where the berms have become part of his political identity, and this is troubling, for as the science continues to roll in the sand berms are being shown time and time again to be simply, a bad idea.

Among those criticisms are the idea that the berms will potentially worsen the impact of the spill on the marshes by trapping oil behind and/or increasing the speed of oil flowing through the remaining openings in their artificial shield and with the time it has taken to build the first few miles of these berms, significant oil has already entered the marshes, everywhere. And what of the habitats? The contractors have assured that every caution is being undertaken not to harm habitats, but when the amount of sand needed to create the berms is eleven times the volume of the Superdome, scientists simply don’t see how this is possible, even if all goes well, meaning a hurricane or storm surge doesn’t hit the fragile berms scattering their flimsy constructs far and wide where they will hold back nothing. “In 18 years in the governor’s office,” one scientist said, “I’ve never seen an administration where science is such an alien concept,” but not only science…also, transparency, for what went on behind closed doors in deciding to construct these berms may never be known. Jindal, despite all campaign claims of opening up the governor’s office has done anything but, and he sealed all of the state’s oil spill records. He states he wouldn’t want BP to know what Louisiana knows, a dubious legal argument due to terms of disclosure in any trial. For whatever his reason, it would seem it is the people of Louisiana he wants kept out of the loop. We do not, and quite possibly will not ever know how much the dredging companies, the construction companies influenced the idea of constructing sand berms in the face of virtually all science and simple logistics.

Jindal would rather keep Louisiana in the dark, unaware of the politics behind most any of his decisions, including these sand berms.

So instead, let’s take a look at who is completing their construction: the Shaw Group.

This company, whose office are located in Baton Rouge made a great deal of money after Katrina. They pocketed close to $350 million dollars in contracts from the Army and FEMA and are most famous for the subcontracting involved therein, especially with their contract for covering roofs with blue tarp. According to an essay by William Quigley, the Shaw Group got $175 dollars a square foot to do the job. They subcontracted this work out to another company, paying them $75 dollars a square foot, who then subcontracted to another company for $30 dollars, who finally subcontracted to another company that actually did the work, and were paid a total per square foot of $2 dollars. This is only one example of price gouging which can occur during no-bid contracts, the same kind of contracts the Shaw Group was awarded to construct these sand berms. Also, and perhaps more importantly, it should be noted the Shaw Group has donated the third highest amount to Jindal’s political campaigns, and should Jindal decide to run for President in 2012, which despite his protestations seems a very real possibility, it is the Shaw Group that will be in place to reap continued benefit and to continue opening those funding doors for his campaign.

Despite being politically dead in the water before this oil spill, the times have changed for the governor, making his run much more likely. Bobby Jindal recently scheduled an appearance at a fundraiser in Minnesota for the Republican Party. He has also been making regular appearances on Fox News. As the oil spill continued to dominate the news cycle, Jindal found his star power rising, oftentimes as a result of his stance in favor of the sand berms and critical of BP and the Obama Administration. As mentioned before, the sand berms have become a powerful symbol and a part of his identity. They are something he can point to, give tours of, something tangible he can show to conservative thinkers and the moneyed backers as evidence of his actions in times of crisis, of his strong states rights record and his beliefs in the limited role of federal government. In order to wholly maintain his reputation as a serious presidential contender, the sand berms must be completed. To the Louisiana governor, their construction can be seen as a partial construction of his legitimacy for national office.

So now, Jindal has made his request to expand his berm plan beyond the scope of the emergency permit he already received, and this has opened up the process to official comments from environmental groups and federal agencies. Many of the comments have not been released from the Army Corps of Engineers process per policy, but Garret Graves has stated he feels many of these people are against the berms because they don’t have the information necessary to adequately determine their effectiveness and/or they are just biased against the idea from the start. Despite this argument, the Jindal administration doesn’t put forth any effort to explain the workings of the plan, beyond releasing some financial information, and this information has not been good. It shows that of the $350 million dollars given by BP for the entire project, they have already spent 30% of the money and only constructed 10% of the berms. Despite the closed commenting, several agencies are speaking out and just about all are against the completion of the project.  The EPA, who actually has veto power over the berms, weighed in via a letter written to the US Army Corps where they questioned whether the 6-foot high sand bars are indeed blocking the oil, “Specifically, we question the timeliness of berm construction and the ability of the berm to substantially reduce the amount of oil reaching wetlands, barrier islands, and interior waters, especially in light of the capping of the wellhead…given the questionable effectiveness of this proposed project and the potential of significant adverse environmental impacts, we recommend that the Corps not permit construction activities in areas beyond the six reaches already authorized.”

This opinion hasn’t affected Jindal’s unwavering stance in favor of his project’s completion.

Graves responded to the EPA by saying the permit process could take another 12 months for the Corps to complete and by then the work on the six berms under the “emergency use authorization” will be complete, and Jindal still wants authorization to finish his 100 miles despite the environmental science, the EPA, and the lack of funds to finish the project. It only stands to reason that the Shaw Group would also like to see the berms go on, and as far as Jindal’s aspirations to national office? He’s been flying high on the press from the oil spill, a man of determination and decision; it would certainly be the blackest of black eyes to walk away from his one big bold idea.

And that is precisely what should happen.

Walk away.

British Petroleum gave $350 million dollars for coastal protection efforts, of which this berm idea has consumed over $100 million dollars already, and this in a time when money is very scarce. Wouldn’t this money be better invested in rebuilding barrier islands under a comprehensive plan? Barrier islands don’t wash away in a storm. Barrier islands have the strength to last and slow down hurricanes. Lately, Jindal has said the water behind his sand berms should be filled in to create marshes, possibly in an attempt to mitigate the coming damage if he is forced to walk away from his grand idea, but this piecemeal approach will not work. A comprehensive plan must be followed, and I would argue this comprehensive plan should be created by environmentalists and Gulf Coast scientists, not an administration that has done nothing but show hostility towards science all along.

To put it in perspective, the Army Corps of Engineers have a plan years in the making to build or rebuild seven of these barrier islands which will last for up to ten years or more. The islands will support mangroves, marshes, rookeries and become part of a healthy ecosystem. Congress has allocated only $124 million to this project, enough to partially rebuild one. Jindal has spent over a$100 million dollars building his fragile berms that will be a part of nothing, quickly by natural erosion, or all at once by way of one serious storm.

BP’s money would be better allocated elsewhere.

The sand berms were a bad idea from the beginning, as fragile as any presidential campaign built on tragedy. Giuliani found that out and I suspect Jindal will too, so to change course he should do what’s right for the state, and not what’s right for his own political ambitions.

Long after he is gone, Louisianans will still be here. Even though changing course now will cause his aspirations to take a hit, one further compounded by the Shaw Group’s loss of financial profit should construction stop, it is the right thing to do. It is the courageous thing to do.

Unlike he did with Louisiana’s universities, the state’s unemployment insurance, and health insurance for those most in need, it is time…this time, for Jindal to put his constituents first.

Build barrier islands, not sand berms.

For the good of the state and the good of its people, for a change.

Have a nice day.

2 thoughts on “Changing Course in the Gulf: Bad Lessons in Money and Politics Pt. 2 – Bobby Jindal, Sand Berms and the Shaw Group

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s