Thursday, May 06, 2010

Thursday, May 6 Oil Spill Update: Preparing for the Siege

"Misfortune to you Byzantium, because * * * each horse of Ismail will cross over, Byzantium, and will begin the battle and break the gate of the Wooden Circus and enter as far as the Ox."

-- ominous prophecy contained in
"The Apocalypse of Pseudo- Methodius" (669 A.D.),
quoted in Roger Crowley,
New York: Hyperion Press (2005)
1. Preparing for the Siege.

The big news on Pensacola Beach is Travis Griggs' local newspaper report that "Escambia County officials are trying to get approval for an ambitious plan to steepen a two-mile section of Pensacola Beach along the shoreline and stockpile sand outside of the oil's reach."

Like doomed Christians inside the glorious capital of the Eastern Roman Empire, local authorities continue casting about desperately for some means -- any means -- of salvation from the approaching invasion. In 1453, siege was laid by Sultan Mehmet the Second's army.
No one knows exactly how many men Mehmet brought to the siege. * * * To the eulogizing Ottoman chroniclers they were simply "a river of steel... as numerous as the stars."

-- Crowley, 1453 at 102.
In 2010, no one knows exactly how much oil is leaking from British Petroleum's Deepwater Horizon well. All that is certain is that it is a "river" of toxic pollution whose destructive consequences could last for generations.

2. Sand Scraping on Pensacola Beach.

The latest plan was developed by SRIA's longtime engineering retainer, Baskerville-Donovan, along with the Jacksonville firm of Olsen Associates. It was submitted to the U.S. Coast Guard on Tuesday, but was rejected yesterday afternoon. Although the Coast Guard turned the plan down yesterday, there's every reason to suppose something very much like it will be approved soon.

Reporter Griggs writes that the plan involves bulldozing two miles beach sand to move it "higher on the beach," where it presumably would be "out of reach of the oil slick." The sand would be used to "steepen the slope of low-lying swaths of the beach that are frequently washed over by surf." (Never mind that wash-overs during storms these days include almost every part of the beach from Portofino to the Fort Pickens picnic area.)

Ostensibly, so Griggs writes, "Santa Rosa Island Authority officials asked the unified command for permission to use heavy equipment to move sand away from the waterfront so it won't be affected if oil comes ashore."
"Once we get this cleaned up and there's no more oil, you take that beautiful sand that's been saved and you put it back down by the water," said Buck Lee, executive director of the Santa Rosa Island Authority.
The first impression one gets is that county officials are desperate enough to try just about anything. And who can blame them? The oil lake floating in the Gulf of Mexico now has become so large, and the consequences are likely to be so devastating and long-lasting, that there are no good options left.

Quite obviously, the plan submitted by Island Authority and County officials will be destructive to whatever sand habitats and sea turtle nesting areas may be found in that "two-mile stretch" they're worried about.

If any Gulf sea turtles happen to survive this calamity, good luck to them. Purportedly, this is why the Florida Department of Environmental Protection turned the Escambia County plan down. As Griggs reports, the agency doesn't want to disrupt turtle nesting season "which begins this month."

3. Necessary Questions.

Sea turtles are in for a terrible time, oily sand or no. Their fate well could be sealed. It is in some ways the least of the issues this plan raises.

Reporter Grigg's article focuses on how scraping the sand back from the shoreline is designed to save the white sand so it later can be returned to where it belongs. The other side of the coin, however, is that the sand is to be deposited up-beach near the foundations of a good many buildings, many of which have been too close to the shore for comfort for a long time, anyway.

Protecting private property from the ravages of oil pollution is a legitimate objective. We do it every year when hurricane season rolls around. But both the scraping part and the up-beach deposit aspects leave unanswered many questions. Here are some of them:
  • If bulldozing sand off the beach is such a good idea, why just two miles of beach instead of the full 7.5 miles of Gulf front seashore from one end of Pensacola Beach to the other?
  • For that matter, which two miles have been designated for bulldozing? The commercial core, certainly. That's where most visitors go and where most beach businesses are. But two miles is a much longer stretch of coastline than the core occupies. Is the 'steepening the slope' in front of low lying areas which officials have in mind designed to protect mainly beach-front condos and hotels, leaving others to fend for themselves?
  • How was the "two mile" stretch decided upon? Who did the deciding and what was their criteria?
  • Few, if any, beach residents or business leaseholders knew of this plan before it was described in today's paper. None, that we know of, was consulted. If the plan happens to shield from oil intrusion one favored condominium or business and not others, what safeguards against favoritism are in place to prevent officials (or their engineers) from playing the all-too-familiar Pensacola game of "good ol' boy?"
  • How much will it cost to bulldoze a part of the beach and who gets the bill? Rick Outzen reports on his Independent News blog that --
    Escambia County is asking BP for five million dollars for a contingency mitigation account. County will add $5 million from county’s disaster recovery fund."
    If this "request" includes the expense of scraping up a beach sand wall, is the entire plan dependent on British Pettroleum's generous assent? Or, is Escambia County prepared to foot the whole bill if BP declines?
  • If the county pays the bill, you can be sure it will pass the cost along to beach people. But which ones? Assuming (as we do) that BP eventually will openly fight every demand for just compensation, as it has done in past oil spills, will the burden of reimbursing for the up-front expense fall only on condos and businesses shielded from oil by the "up-beach" sand wall? Or, will all leaseholders pay, regardless?
  • Hurricane season officially begins in just a little over three weeks. As everyone here knows, a gradually sloping sandy beachfront is Nature's first defense against a water surge. What are the likely consequences to everyone of a denuded "steeper" beachfront? Will it make a storm cut-through of Santa Rosa island more or less likely?
4. Dauphin Island.

Reporter Griggs also mentions that a "similar" effort is underway at Dauphin Island, Alabama. His own news article, however, reads as if the plan isn't so much "similar" as it is completely the opposite. On Dauphin Island, engineers are --
constructing sand dunes to protect interior, low-lying areas of the barrier island that are frequently washed over during storms and high tides.

Dauphin Island Mayor Jeff Collier said the main concern was that a storm could wash a slick of oil over the entire narrow island, inundating the sewer system, covering roads and contaminating sensitive environmental areas on the island's north shore.

In other words, as Mayor Collier told the PNJ, the Dauphin Island plan "will still allow the oil onto the shorelines and beaches. We're just trying to keep it out of sensitive environmental areas." That plan was "approved by the unified command within about 48 hours... ."

So, when you can't have everything what's it to be? Protect the wetlands and other low-lying areas as on Dauphin Island? Or, build a sand wall on a small select stretch of Pensacola Beach and let the rest of the island fend for itself?

5. Important Precedent.

Of course, the Granddaddy question of all is -- to borrow Buck Lee's date for replacing the sand he wants to scrape up -- "When will there be "no more oil?"

Nine years ago, on an Earth Day visit to the Pensacola Beach EPA research site, we wound up in the office of a top researcher who had only recently returned from a long professional visit to the site of the Exxon-Valdez oil spill site. He was still pretty shook up over what he had seen.

Although the Exxon-Valdez oil spill had happened a dozen years before his visit, the researcher told us it was still a god-awful mess. And, he expected it would remain so for generations to come. He was quite emphatic in saying "people down here" have no idea of the extent of environmental damage a large oil spill can have.

Years and years of beach cleaning had barely 'whitewashed' the appearances of things in Prince William Sound, he concluded. "Dig down an inch or turn over a rock," he said, "and it's still there. The entire food chain was broken."

And, he added, the chain of life along with it. "I don't know if it can ever come back," he told us.

That's almost exactly what coastal scientists fear today: Buck Lee's anticipated day when there is "no more oil" will never arrive in our lifetime. As Brandon Keim wrote yesterday ["Gulf Coast May Be Permanently Changed By Oil Spill"], unless the experimental underwater containment system BP is trying to install over the next few days works, "the Gulf Coast could be damaged beyond recovery."

If that entirely foreseeable outcome comes to pass, of what use will two miles of dead sand be to any of us?


Anonymous said...

Why not require that BP, or someone, place booms out about 100 ft. from shore so that any oil is not left at the shoreline?

Anonymous said...

Our question is, what does the beach plan to do once the slick hits? Do they plan to just dump the white sand that was saved on top of the oily beach? That has never been made clear, at least for us.

Thanks for all the effort you have put into this, we appreciate it so much.

Anonymous said...

You know, last year about this time and even in early April there were bulldozers on the beach every weekday that I was there pushing sand around hither and yon. I asked one of the lifeguards why they were bulldozing the sand and he said they were told that it was to help the sea turtles.

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