Scientist proposes unleashing Mississippi River to flush oil

A respected scientist wants to enlist Old Man River in the battle against the BP PLC oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.

G. Paul Kemp, a former marine science professor at Louisiana State University who works now with the National Audubon Society's coastal initiative, is proposing turning loose the mighty Mississippi River to flush oil out of the river's marshy delta. Kemp said in an interview that he has given his plan to U.S. EPA and has been assured that it is being reviewed at the "highest levels."

"There is no downside," Kemp said. "This is an example of being nimble to deal with a real threat. It has good science behind it."

The plan calls for the Army Corps of Engineers to tweak the massive, adjustable concrete dams about 315 miles upriver from the Gulf of Mexico to divert more water from the nearby Atchafalaya River into the Mississippi River.

The Army Corps built the dams -- collectively called the Old River Control Structure -- in 1963 to keep the Mississippi River flowing through New Orleans and Baton Rouge, rather than shifting its path to the sea as it does every 1,000 or so years.


The river is in mid-shift now, pushing more and more toward the Atchafalaya River with each year, Kemp said. To stop a complete switch, the corps must adjust water-management structures to ensure a constant flow of 70 percent of the Mississippi River along its traditional path and 30 percent to the Atchafalaya River.

Kemp recommends sending more water down the Mississippi -- as much as 81 percent, if not more -- to push out the oil.

Some scientists who have considered Kemp's plan say it contains no obvious flaws. And they say it is astonishingly simple, unlike Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal's (R) plan for building 120 miles of offshore sand berms to block oil heading toward marshes and beaches. Critics say that plan would take months to complete and would require heavy equipment that could destroy the seabed and disrupt nesting birds that the spill-containment effort is trying to protect.

"What's the downside?" Denise Reed, who heads the Pontchartrain Institute for Environmental Sciences, said of Kemp's plan in an interview. "I'm sure somebody has to turn a lever somewhere, but that person has a salary anyway."

Inaction could carry a cost.

Scientists say the Mississippi River's flow has limited oiling of marshes on the west side of Breton Sound and east side of Barataria Bay. But those protective currents have been weakening since June 1, making it easier for oil to infiltrate marshes.

Said Kemp, "We just don't want to get into a situation where, by not helping the river, we're inviting oil further into the marsh."

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