Nikki Buskey / Houma Courier
Local officials are raising concerns over a BP proposal to deep clean beaches across south Louisiana after Hurricane Isaac unearthed buried oil.
State and local officials who are objecting to the proposal said it could worsen erosion on Louisiana's beaches and kill ecosystems of microbes that live in the sand.
Lafourche Parish's Fourchon Beach suffered severe erosion during Isaac, washing sand off the beach and exposing the shore down to its clay foundation, said Archie Chaisson III, the parish's coastal zone manager.
“The storm basically stripped the sand off the beach,” Chaisson said. “There's not a whole lot left to deep clean.”
BP officials hadn't provided comments as of press time.
The deep cleaning process uses heavy equipment to sift sand and remove containments, digging as deep as 4 feet.
BP Gulf Coast Restoration Organization President Mike Utsler announced the proposal at a news conference in New Orleans last week, saying repeated tropical storms and hurricanes have buried oil deeper beneath the surface.
Louisiana beaches have been regularly plagued with tar balls washing up from large mats of oil left buried in the shore since the 2010 BP spill. As oil washed in during the spill, it mixed with sand, becoming heavier and eventually buried by storm surf.
Six tar mats were uncovered on Elmer's Island after Hurricane Isaac. Oil was also reported on Grand Isle, Grand Terre and Fourchon Beach, and in Bay Jimmy.
Garret Graves, chairman of the state's Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority, voiced concerns about the deep cleaning and categorized it as too little, too late.
Last year, the U.S. Coast Guard announced the Gulf Coast would shift to a Shoreline Cleanup Completion Plan, which would lay out the process for determining how formerly oiled areas can be declared clean.
Federal officials and all Gulf states signed onto the plan except Louisiana. State officials said it leaves Louisiana's vulnerable beaches and marshes open to continued oiling and doesn't hold BP accountable for long-term monitoring and cleanup of oiled shores.
“For well over a year the state has been pushing BP to remove this oil. It was obvious it was there,” Graves said. “Their refusal to take proactive steps to remove the oil has put us in this predicament now.”
He added that BP was trying to remove portions of Elmer's Island beach from active cleanup shortly before Hurricane Isaac uncovered oil.
Graves said the state is concerned because the “intrusive, mechanical approach” to cleaning oil from beaches will dig up too much of the beach on already vulnerable shoreline. Without compacted beach sand, shores will be more exposed to erosion. The process will also impact microorganisms that live in the sand.
“When you dig up and expose those organisms to sunlight and the elements, you end up killing and changing these ecosystems,” Graves said.
Graves said BP's request was a “blanket deep-cleaning proposal across south Louisiana,” a request the state finds “too blunt and intrusive.”
Lafourche Parish President Charlotte Randolph said that the cleaning process wasn't ideal, but it might be a necessary evil to get remaining oil off of Lafourche's beaches.
"We're not thrilled with it, but simultaneously, we can understand that to get to the root of the problem we might have to dig that far down," Randolph said.
She said parish government officials were recently told of a new tar mat discovered on Fourchon measuring 25 feet by 20 feet in size, that could be up to 18 inches thick.
"This points to the fact that two years later, something still lingers out there," she said. "We've been pressing the Coast Guard and BP to do some kind of investigation."
The Wisner Donation Trust, which owns 9.5 miles of Fourchon Beach, has been battling BP over erosion it said the company's contractors caused during the cleanup process, even without using the more invasive deep cleaning. Cathy Norman, manager of the Wisner Trust, said the group has objected each time the company has proposed deep cleaning the beach and will do so again.
“With the lack of sand now on the beach, it's just not a good thing,” Norman said. “They've done it before on Grand Isle and Elmer's Island, and it didn't do anything.”
Forrest Travirca III, inspector for the Wisner Donation Trust, said BP cleanup crews have been on Fourchon Beach for the last week, working to clean oil thrown on shore after Hurricane Isaac.
The crews will also soon begin the process of removing structures installed to close breaches in the shoreline to prevent oil from getting into interior marshes. Those structures, which are likely housing buried oil, became exposed during Hurricane Isaac. They need to be removed so they are not unearthed by storms and allowed to cause damage, Travirca said.
“We want a clean beach and a restored beach. That's the only answer,” Travirca said.
Graves said the Coast Guard hasn't approved BP's cleaning plan, and the state and federal trustees are continuing to give feedback.
The state still hopes BP will agree to provide long-term monitoring of Louisiana's beaches after the spill.
“This will continue to happen for decades until BP does what it's supposed to do,” Graves said.