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Critical La. oil port might not stand another major hurricane; direct hit could cause crisis
31 July 2009

CAMINADA HEADLAND, La. (AP) - The booming oil hub called Port Fourchon, a nerve center in the nation's oil supply chain, is turning into a sitting duck for hurricanes as the beach that protects it from the Gulf of Mexico washes away.

The miles-long sand bank -- blasted last year by hurricanes Gustav and Ike, and by Katrina and Rita three years before that -- is nearly all that keeps the Gulf from thrashing the pipelines and shipyards that handle 15 percent of all crude oil flowing to inland refineries.

Port Fourchon, about 70 miles south of New Orleans, also supports 90 percent of the Gulf's 3,700 offshore platforms and connects with the Louisiana Offshore Oil Port -- the only U.S. port capable of handling the largest oil tankers. The offshore port handles 1.5 million barrels of oil a day and ties in by pipeline to about half of domestic refining capacity, most of it on the Gulf Coast.

Officials worry that unless work begins immediately to bolster the port's defenses, a direct hit from a strong Category 3 storm or worse could wipe out its waterways, docks, giant cranes, tanks and helipads, crippling the facility for weeks and creating a national energy crisis overnight.

The Army Corps of Engineers hopes to begin work in 2011 on a $243 million shoreline restoration project for the Caminada Headland, where Port Fourchon (pronounced FOO-shawn) sits. And this year's hurricane season, forecast to be about average with nine to 14 tropical storms, has been quiet.

But August and September are the most active months, and catastrophic storms are not unheard of even during the sleepiest of seasons.

"Hope and pray there's not another hurricane before we can get out there and do the work," said Fay Lachney, the corps' project manager.

Beyond the potential energy crisis, a badly damaged Port Fourchon poses an environmental risk, said Wilma Subra, a Louisiana chemist and environmental activist. On a survey after Gustav last year, Subra found the area littered with hazardous debris from rigs, ships and oil and gas facilities.

"The companies had not secured everything," she said. "There were 55-gallon drums everywhere, 5-gallon pails, little vials, sample containers, out on the road, on the sea grass."

A major environmental catastrophe isn't likely though, since the port is not a major storage spot for oil and pipelines typically are emptied when a storm threatens.

Port officials are eager for the corps work to begin but say they need to immediately shore up the facility's eastern flank with $20 million of improvements. So far, the port has not been able to raise money for breakwaters, man-made dunes and other protection. The Federal Emergency Management Agency has said it does not pay for damage to a natural beach, and a proposal to use stimulus funds was rejected.

Chett Chaisson, the port's economic development director, said he was trying to raise $10 million in state, port and local funds, and that he would turn to the energy industry "if we come up short ... if we can't find funding through the normal sources."

Mike Lyons, a lawyer for the Louisiana Mid-Continent Oil and Gas Association, said the energy industry -- through taxes on oil and gas extraction and with its own funds -- has done a great deal to stop erosion in coastal Louisiana.

"There's quite a bit of money coming in from the industry's operations assisting in the state's efforts to do coastal restoration work," Lyons said. "And we've supported that for several decades."

The industry's biggest direct contribution to Port Fourchon came when Chevron Corp. spent $500,000 on beach restoration at the port in the early 1990s, Chaisson said. More recently, Shell helped plant vegetation on a new manmade ridge.

For now, about all the people who run the port can do is watch the sand wash away. Port staff patrol the area on buggies, looking for breaches and erosion, dispatching damage reports to state and federal agencies, pleading for action.

"Every storm, the beach rolls back. We're getting to a critical point now," Chaisson said. "We keep telling that story and the money just doesn't come."

For its part, the Gulf is not procrastinating.

A recent patrol cruised past a 3-foot-long redfish skeleton bleached by the sun, then came to an abrupt halt. A new breach blocked the way.

"This is bad," port police officer Mitchell Hohensee shouted over the surf and the hum of engines. A couple of weeks before, he'd driven by with no problem. "I'm going to have to get the GPS coordinates for this one," he said.

GPS coordinates help map the site. Also, Hohensee said, the Coast Guard would need to know if one of the pipelines running through the area had been exposed.

Last year's storms washed away about 100 feet of beach on the Caminada Headland, leveled dunes and breached the beach. A centuries-old stand of cedars that time had buried beneath the sand now lies exposed.

Once the waters breach the beach, it creates a tidal prism: water flows between the Gulf and the body of water behind the beach, the breach growing larger with time.

It's possible the breaches will fill in on their own, as has happened before, and there are signs the breaches are doing so. But the long-term combination of erosion, storms and breaches may be too much.

"Maybe we are getting to a point where we are having a tipping in the scale," said Mark Kulp, a coastal geologist with the University of New Orleans.

The land on which the port sits is already isolated, reachable only by the narrow two-lane road to the mainland that often floods. Work is continuing on a new elevated road to keep the outpost connected as Louisiana's coastline continues receding.

"We know that the port is going to be a little island out there in the water that you have to get to by an elevated highway," Chaisson said. But, he said, "if it totally goes, this country has a big problem ... It's much cheaper to protect this port than it is to try and build it somewhere else."


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