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Coastal Restoration Drives An Industry Boom

Jesse Hardman

This spring a state committee approved $477 million for coastal protection and restoration. When you throw in federal dollars, and private funding as well, fixing Louisiana's coast is becoming big business.

Here are some of the people who stand to benefit.

Deep in St. Bernard Parish’s Lake Athanasio, a construction crew is hard at work. Ben Leblanc is standing on a floating barge, overseeing his troops who are knee deep in marsh, battling enormous horse flies.

LeBlanc is providing the muscle for an experimental oyster reef project. He’s making sure 700 concrete rings get transported and installed in the marsh. It’s a new way to create oyster habitat, and a reef to help protect these wetlands from storms. “The shoreline is decreasing, this is just a needle in the haystack of the whole coastline, but it’s a start,” he says.

LeBlanc has spent his entire life playing and working around the Gulf Coast ecosystem. As a kid his family ran a shrimp industry supply company. He’s been a commercial diver, a marine contractor, and now he runs LeBlanc Marine — his specialty is barges. Coastal restoration projects are kind of a new thing.

“I think it’s a new trend of the future, of coastline restoration," he says. "That you can make money off of saving the environment? That is correct.”

With billions of dollars earmarked or Gulf Coast restoration projects over the next 50 years, there’s a lot of work to be done, and a lot of money to spread around. Engineers, construction contractors, and environmental consultants are all vying for a piece of this coastal restoration boom.

Researchers are seeing some love too. Sam Bentley is a geology professor at LSU and the director of the LSU Coastal Studies Institute. A decade ago his specialty, Mississippi Delta mud diversion, wasn’t a big funding priority, so he packed his things and headed up to Canada for a government research job. “It was a reflection of what the scientific community in the US thought. And that’s all changed. Sadly it took Katrina and Rita to really bring the plight of the Mississippi Delta to national attention,” he says.

Bentley came back to LSU a few years ago, and the funding is now flowing from a mixture of private and public grants. Bentley’s also part of a group of researchers that were recently awarded $1.6 million to look at how coastal erosion impacts families living in the Delta region. Studies like that can turn into policy... which then turns into private contracts for industry to do the work, long-term.

“The idea is to be training the next generation of coastal scientists and engineers, who can essentially turn what we're doing into an intellectual commodity, which will result in job growth for Louisiana, and the export of intellectual capital to other places in the US and around the world,” Bentley says.

Engineers Road in Belle Chase has been a one-stop corridor for offshore drilling needs. From rig construction, to helicopters to fly out to the Gulf, even food service. Marsh Buggies Inc. has been on the boulevard since the 1960s. It makes amphibious construction gear, originally created to help oil companies explore hard-to-reach coastal places.

Credit Jesse Hardman / WWNO
An original Marsh Buggy sits in the construction yard.

At the Marsh Buggies warehouse, a crew of welders build a pair of steel pontoons lined with aluminum cleats. Great for moving construction equipment into the mud and water of wetland areas. Marsh Buggies sends these mobile construction devices to oil fields in places like Nigeria and Suriname.

On the Gulf, most drilling has moved offshore. So the buggies here get used almost entirely for jobs like dredging mud and creating earthen levees.

Jamie Autin is the third generation of her family to work at Marsh Buggies Inc. Her Grandfather founded the company. “We don’t solely market ourselves that our equipment is only used for environmental properties only," she says. "But it's definitely a majority of it. I would say a big reason for that is because the concentration on the environment and environmental work has become so popular in recent years.”

She says her family began working on coastal restoration as far back as the 1980s, when there was a dip in the oil market. The first projects used Marsh Buggies to dredge canals and rivers, and then move that sediment to help create new marsh, instead of discarding it.

Credit Jesse Hardman / WWNO
Jaime Autin, third generation Marsh Buggies Inc. employee, and some of her construction crew.

Autin says now coastal restoration projects are developed around the capabilities of her company’s unique equipment. “We financially benefit from that. It puts our equipment to work, it keeps our people working. It keeps people employed its good job security for sure.”

And if you want some proof, look no further than the front lawn of Marsh Buggies headquarters. Right below the company logo a sign reads “HIRING... EXCAVATOR OPERATOR. Apply inside."

Support for coastal reporting on WWNO comes from the Walton Family Foundation, the Greater New Orleans Foundation, the Kabacoff Family Foundation, and the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation.

As the new Coastal Reporter, Jesse Hardman will draw on 15 years of worldwide experience in radio, video and print journalism. As a radio reporter he has reported for NPR, BBC, and CBC, and for such familiar programs as Marketplace, This American Life, Latino USA, and Living on Earth. He served as a daily news reporter and news magazine producer for WBEZ in Chicago.